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Cardinals 2020 Preview: Lane Thomas

Lost between Tyler O’Neill’s massive muscles and Dylan Carlson’s massive prospect hype, Lane Thomas does everything well and should be a solid contributor in 2020.

Houston Astros v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Lane Thomas was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of Bearden HS in Knoxville, TN. Like many prep hitters, Thomas bounced around the rookie league and low-A for several years. He struggled to gain traction when the Jays promoted him to higher levels.

By the summer of 2017, Toronto had advanced Thomas to A+ in what amounts to one final attempt to salvage something from him. Through July, Thomas had another undistinguished season, posting a .252/.319/.383 slash line.

While the Blue Jays were ready to give up on the young center fielder, the Cardinals saw untapped potential. Having lost draft picks in the hacking scandal, the Cardinals were using every resource they had to acquire intriguing talent. Thomas was traded to the Cardinals on July 2, 2017, for what lists as “future considerations”, otherwise known as international cap space.

In 2018, the Cardinals dug deep into their vault of magic pixie dust and promoted Thomas to AA Springfield. There, Thomas finally put his raw talent together, producing a very good .260/.337/.487 slash line and a .363 wOBA. His BB% was near 10 and he did it all with a neutral BABIP of .298. He was still just 22 years old.

In November 2019, Thomas was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft and that positioned the center fielder to learn every gas station BBQ pit on I-55 between Memphis and St. Louis by heart. Thomas was recalled from Memphis four times between mid-April and late-July. He performed exceptionally well, despite receiving only inconsistent plate appearances.

2020 MLB Stats
.316/.409/.684 for a .445 wOBA, with 4 homers, a 9.1 BB% and a .308 BABIP in 44 PA’s.

2020 Projections:
ZiPS Projections - .231/.297/.386, with a .292 wOBA
Depth Charts - .238/.302/.402, with a .300 wOBA

It’s hard not to notice the massive difference between Thomas’ actual production in ‘19 and his projections for 2020. First, what Thomas actually did as a spot starter and pinch hitter is completely unsustainable. It’s a pretty line to look at, but very little of his slash stats can be projected forward with any confidence. The 2020 computer projections, though, do not seem to match his recent performance in the high minors or his breakout introduction to the majors.

I think that since Thomas languished in the low minors for so long and then advanced relatively quickly, the computer models haven’t quite caught up. Relatively poor performances at low levels from ages 18-21 are somewhat dragging down what could be a solid projection.

So, if the models are sketchy, what should we expect from Thomas in 2021? Let’s use Thomas’ prospect skill ratings as a starting point:

Thomas’ game is underwritten by defense and speed. He is considered an excellent center fielder with a strong and accurate arm. His sprint speed ranked in the 98th percentile by Baseball Savant last season and that speed shows up in the field and on the bases.

His hitting lags behind his exceptional defense and speed, but he is still a well-rounded batter. For the past three seasons, his BB rates have hovered between 8-10%, and he hits as many doubles as home runs. While Thomas is known as a pull hitter, his 2019 MLB spray chart showed an ability to hit to use all fields with power.

We can see some of this hitting talent in a few samples from his 2019 debut. Against pitcher Seth Lugo, Thomas took an outside slider to right field at 100.8 mph for a homer that just cleared the wall. It was his first as a major leaguer.

His hardest-hit ball was a line-drive single to LF, struck at 108.7 mph.

His hardest HR was also a line-drive.

Thomas’ overall exit velocity was 91.7, which would have been in the top 20 had he qualified for the leader board, though it’s likely that more plate appearances would have lowered his average. Despite the high exit velocity, his launch angle was lower than one might like, which explains his high line drive rate in the majors - 26.7% - and relatively low fly ball%. Still, the few flies he hit left the park at a ridiculous 50% rate.

This is why the club remains so interested in him, despite relatively weak projections and little attention from prospect analysts. Lane Thomas hits the ball hard with a swing that consistently produces doubles. In the high minors, he showed the ability to generate loft as well. If he can translate those skills to the majors over more than a handful of plate appearances, he could be solid run producer (or better). Oh, and he plays excellent defense and has elite speed.

I expect Thomas to be, at worst, a good 4th OF’er who could probably start for a lot of clubs in the leagues. I think he’ll outperform his projections, and provide stiff competition for Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader.