Lane Thomas was one of the Cardinals’ players most affected by the COVID-shortened season in 2021. The 25-year-old put up strong numbers in Triple-A in 2019 (.347 wOBA, although only a 97 wRC+) before mashing in 44 plate appearances with the big league club in the same year. After that, the bad luck began for the speedy outfielder. Thomas posted a 181 wRC+ with four home runs in first 34 major league games, and the only thing that stopped his hot streak from continuing was a fractured wrist. This injury caused him to miss the rest of the 2019 season. He may have had a chance to build off his strong debut if he had not tested positive for COVID in what was already a short season in 2020. This meant that he played just 18 games last season.
Despite this bad luck, there is still plenty of opportunity for Lane Thomas to prove that he can claim a starting job as the outfield outlook is murky in 2021. Harrison Bader will likely be the starting center fielder, but he may lose at-bats against certain pitchers. Additionally, Dylan Carlson will likely take another stating job as it is unlikely that the organization would bring him to the majors to sit on the bench. This leaves a combination of Dexter Fowler and Tyler O’Neill in the other outfield spot and neither of those options are very appealing. This may allow Lane Thomas to compete for a starting job in the spring, while he may also receive a decent amount of playing time at all three outfield spots.
Recently, Baseball America named Lane Thomas the 9th best prospect in the Cardinals system, with his highest graded tools being running (70) and fielding (60). This makes him sound very similar to Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill as both of those players are more known for their speed and their defense than their offensive production. However, while Thomas’ hit tool was graded at just a 45 and his power at just a 50, there is a chance that he can surpass these grades.
In 2018, Thomas posted an ISO of .227 in 435 plate appearances at Double-A Springfield. Then, he nearly replicated that ISO following a promotion to Triple-A in that same year (.221 ISO, 140 plate appearances). His ISO dropped a bit in 2019 at the Triple-A level (192 ISO), but not to the point where he risked losing all of his production, and then he raked when he reached the majors in 2019. Additionally, he never posted a batting average below .260 in the Cardinals organization before last season. Therefore, it is possible that he will prove to be a better hitter than his 45 hit tool and 50 power tool would indicate.
Thomas has also posted walk rates around 10% throughout the past couple of seasons. He also some swing-and-miss in his game, but his strikeout rate hovered between 23% and 26% in 2018 and 2019, so he should be able to make enough contact to tap into his power, and post a decent batting average. He may have struggled at the beginning of his minor league career, but Lane Thomas has done nothing but hit since joining the Cardinals organization from Toronto in exchange for international spending money. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to think that Baseball America might be underrating Thomas’ hitting ability.
Baseball America and some other prospect evaluators view Lane Thomas as a future fourth outfielder with his combination of speed and defense. However, if his hit tool can exceed expectations, then he could develop himself into a strong MLB starter. Just like last year with Tyler O’Neill, the Cardinals my wish to discover if Lane Thomas can be a viable starting outfielder in 2021. Additionally, with no external acquisitions looking likely, and plenty of in-house candidates who do not stand out, the opportunity exists for Lane Thomas to seize a starting job in 2021.