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A closer look at Lane Thomas

What can we expect of Lane Thomas in 2020?

Detroit Tigers v St Louis Cardinals - Game One Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It does not appear that the Cardinals will sign another outfielder, and in this writer’s opinion, that’s a good thing. I have been a vocal advocate for signing another infielder, but I’m more torn on another outfielder. There are calls to sign another outfielder who can specifically hit right-handed pitching, and it’s undeniably a weakness that in a perfect world would be addressed. But in a world where the Cardinals want to spend as little money as possible, I’d much prefer whatever available money they are willing to spend to be spent on another infielder.

One of my arguments against signing another outfielder is the surplus of mediocrity combined with potential. The outfield is thoroughly mediocre, but it’s mediocre in an interesting way. With the exception of Dexter Fowler, everyone else is young and has potential that exceeds what they currently are. That can be a bad thing, but I don’t actually think the floor of this outfield is all that low. Some question how high Dylan Carlson’s potential really is, but very few actually doubt his ability to be an MLB regular. Harrison Bader’s defense will always keep him afloat. And you could probably say the same thing about Tyler O’Neill.

And then there’s just the fact that they have a lot of options. One man falters, another man can step up. They aren’t necessarily depending on those four to be good. I mean they are in a literal sense, but behind them, there’s also Austin Dean, Justin Williams, and Lane Thomas. Dean seems like he has some potential to duplicate the success of Jose Martinez and honestly we’ve seen so little of Justin Williams the past two years, that anything’s possible there. And then there’s Lane Thomas, who has the combination of power, speed and defense that puts him in a potentially similar boat to O’Neill.

One of the main differences between the two and why we’re not penciling Thomas as the starting LF is that O’Neill was a highly regarded prospect who crushed the ever living daylights out of AAA. Lane Thomas was a hidden gem who broke out, but disappointed in AAA. Their projections are virtually the same, except O’Neill is expected to have more power, which is a very big difference mind you.

Thomas has an interesting backstory. When he was born, his father was a professional drag racer in the NHRA. And his father took him to every one of his meets. He went along with his father across the country until school came along, and then he followed his father during summers. It was there where he discovered a love of baseball. He was evidently skilled at operating a racing simulator, but balked at the idea of driving in race cars that went 200 mph in six seconds. Having baseballs fly at you at 100 mph certainly sounds like a walk in the park compared to that.

His father’s racing career was coming to a close and he took the opportunity to join a coaching staff on a travel team for his son. The travel team was a success and so was Thomas at high school, batting .410 with 17 HRs in his senior season. He committed to Tennessee his sophomore year, but when the Blue Jays drafted him in the 5th round and offered him $750,000, he signed instead.

Things started well. He did nothing spectacular, but in his first 34 professional games at the GCL rookie level, he hit for a 119 wRC+. A late season promotion to a higher rookie level produced a BABIP-aided 136 wRC+ that convinced the Blue Jays to start him in short season A ball for next season. He struggled to an 80 wRC+, but an opening in A ball garnered him a promotion after 43 games, where he was overmatched to the tune of a 5 wRC+ in just 9 games before his season ended prematurely with an injury.

Nonetheless, the Blue Jays showed faith in him and started him in A ball in 2016. It probably had more to do with him being able to see game playing time in April, which he otherwise would not be able to do without a promotion. Whatever the motive, he rewarded their confidence. Somewhat. He struggled to make contact, striking out over 30% of the time, but he was able to balance that out a little with a 13.7 BB%. Given the circumstances, he held his own, but hard to be too excited about a 106 wRC+ with that K rate and a .131 ISO.

Virtually nothing changed by early July when the Blue Jays traded Thomas for cash considerations. Thomas was promoted to High A, and he struggled to make contact or have much power, and despite that, he still managed an above average hitting line. Age was on his side - he was 22 by the time of the trade - but barely being above average with no power and lots of strikeouts does not lend itself to long-term success.

His Palm Beach numbers are bad, but he got injured five days into being a Cardinal. He was activated off the 7-day IL after the customary seven days and then got put back on the IL five days after that and then his season was done. Given the small sample and the injuries, there’s really not much to be read from his High A stats at Palm Beach, but he seemed to remain basically the same hitter as the Blue Jays version.

This is the point of the story where Lane Thomas becomes an interesting prospect after showing nothing of note through High A. The Cardinals would have been justified in keeping him at High A but that would involve playing at Palm Beach and they clearly wanted to give him a chance, so he started the 2018 season at Springfield. And out of nowhere, he developed power.

I don’t quite know what the Cardinals told him, but the transformation was truly remarkable. He struck out significantly less and added double the power without it really affecting his walk rate at all. Some of that is playing at Springfield, helpful hitter’s park, but his stats were much too improved to say that was the only thing that happened.

He was promoted midseason to AAA and the only real concerning thing was that his walk rate got cut in half. He kept the power and the strikeout change. In 2018, he had a 123 wRC+ with a .298 BABIP and in AA, he had a 110 wRC+ with a .326 BABIP at Memphis. He was an afterthought before the 2018 season, a legitimate prospect after it was over.

And then his 2019 happened, which formed a regression of sorts. While the rest of the league exploded in offense, he struggled. His strikeouts rose to 26.3%, but his walks also doubled to over 10%. More troubling was his decline in power, which happened despite power exploding across AAA. His .192 ISO may not seem that bad, but in the context of AAA that year, it wasn’t great. At the end of the year, he had a 97 wRC+ with a .343 BABIP, numbers that scream “ignore me.”

Pretty much none of what I said above is known by the average Cardinals fan, because he got called up to the big leagues several times and that’s the memory of every Cardinals fan of Thomas. Thomas, in 44 PAs, batted .316 with 4 homers and a 181 wRC+. This was encouraging although an incredibly small sample. But I noticed that Thomas went on the IL more than once in 2019, so I’ll check his stat lines through his injuries to see if that can help shed some light on his AAA numbers.

4/4 - 6/14: .236/.335/.352, 72 wRC+

6/22 - 7/28: .320/.382/.640, 141 wRC+

Well, this isn’t the injury narrative I was looking for, however his season ending early when his numbers were trending upwards suggest injuries could have prevent a better looking line. That coupled with his MLB numbers means you can’t write him off as a one-season wonder. Which is good for the Cardinals, because he’s in the mix of outfielders looking to prove themselves.

As far as his 2020 numbers, I’m willing to ignore them. While I have never necessarily been the biggest Lane Thomas backer, he seemed like a different player last year, and it could have been related to the long layoff or the after effects of COVID. It just derailed his timing and he never got it back and hey we’re also talking about 40 total PAs here. Even if he didn’t have the excuse of a weird season, 40 PAs would still be 40 PAs, and you can’t write off a player due to 40 PAs.

A late bloomer like Thomas will probably be underrated by projection systems. I completely understand why ZiPS has him with a 70 wRC+ - his AAA season in 2019 wasn’t very good and he had an awful 2020. I mean his numbers almost seem purposefully designed to fool a projection system when you look deeper at the numbers.

But there’s a difference between 70 wRC+ and what his projection should probably be, and it’s probably not a 100 wRC+. Or even a 90 wRC+. There’s not much reason to think he should have a better projection than Tyler O’Neill, who has a 91 wRC+. I am not a big believer in Thomas’ bat, so to me, his overall value in the majors comes down to his defense. Because his bat doesn’t need to be that much if his defense is great. Thomas is fast as hell, so he could very well be great on defense. I genuinely don’t know.

Finding out what Lane Thomas is - and Carlson and O’Neill - is one of the biggest reasons I don’t really want another outfielder. I want to see what these guys can do, for better or worse. And what better year than a year where the Cardinals won’t spend any money and everybody else in the division has given up?