Just as I posted the transactional happenings in the rest of the division, the Cards announced the following transaction just now:
4/15/21: Optioned OF Lane Thomas to the Alternate Training Site. Purchased the contract of OF Scott Hurst from the Alternate Training Site. To make room on the 40-man, transferred RHP Dakota Hudson from the 10-day IL to the 60-day IL.
This has to be a big blow for Lane Thomas. The organization traded international bonus pool money for Thomas in July of 2017, but he was only able to play in nine games for the Palm Beach Cardinals that season due to an injury. Thomas’s star was on the rise when he he led all minor leaguers with 27 homers in a 2018 season split between AA Springfield and AAA Memphis. While Thomas’s 2019 AAA triple-slash line of .268/.362/.460 was only good for a 97 wRC+ according to Fangraphs, the organization was still high on his overall abilities, and he was poised to get regular playing time in the majors at the end of the season after a strong showing in just 44 trips to the plate. That plan was squashed when he was hit by a pitch on August 27th of 2019, which broke his wrist and ended his season.
It has all been downhill for Thomas since. After making the 2020 opening day 30-man roster, Thomas was one of the players that came down with COVID-19, and was placed on the injured list during the period of time that play was stalled for the Cardinals. The virus hit him hard, and when he came back on August 31st, he didn’t look right out there. He got 10 starts in the outfield while he was on the club, but had a few head-scratching defensive miscues, slashed .111/.200/.250 in 40 trips to the plate, and struck out over 32% of the time. The club optioned him on September 16th and left him off the postseason roster.
Going into this season, it looked like Thomas might have been a lock to make the opening day roster, especially after it was announced that Harrison Bader would open the season on the injured list. But the club decided to option Thomas and put both Austin Dean and John Nogowski on the opening day roster on the strength of their offensive showings in spring training. Thomas didn’t hit especially poorly in camp, and he did make some good defensive plays to his side, but John Mozeliak correctly noted that Thomas struggled with balls that required him to drift back towards the wall.
When Tyler O’Neill went on the injured list on April 11th, Thomas was recalled and got the start in center field that day against the Brewers. He was presented with a non-routine, but catchable ball in the first inning when Manny Pina lined a ball to shallow center. Thomas ran forward, but whiffed on his dive and the ball got by him for a double. He got the start again yesterday and the defense was worse. There was a play similar to the Pina play in the first inning, where he whiffed his dive on a catchable ball in the 2nd inning. Josh Zimmerman hit a homer in the 4th inning just barely over the wall, where Thomas didn’t seem to make a good jump to try to get. Maybe somebody like Bader wouldn’t have robbed that homer, but it was got much worse than those two plays. Juan Soto lined a base hit to center in the 6th, and Thomas failed to get his glove down and let the ball just roll right by him. That play cost the Cards a run, and there was a flyball later in the game that just dropped in the outfield that Thomas didn’t make an effort to take charge of.
The club has now apparently seen enough. We don’t know what will happen, as Thomas even has another option year left after this one, but unless Thomas does something to resurrect his career when the minor league season starts, he might be a non-tender candidate at this point.
Since the Cards were fresh out of outfielders on the 40-man roster, the next man up is Scott Hurst, the Cards’ 3rd round draft choice in 2017, and the highest pick the Cards had in that draft. Hurst, who is now 25 years old and weighs in at 5’10” and 175 pounds, has never played in AAA at all, and only has 161 plate appearances at the AA level. He didn’t hit at all in 2019 at either A-Advanced (.233/.292/.314 in 244 PA with a .302 BABIP) or AA (.191/.278/.277). He only had 273 plate appearances total in 2018 because of injuries. He struck out a lot in 2019 for a player with as little power as he has. Hurst was not part of the Cards’ Alternate Training Site last season. You can peruse our own Red Baron’s take on Hurst as a draft selection here, and as part of his Cardinal prospect series here, here, and here.
Since he hasn’t hit much at all in the minors, one can only presume that Hurst is up here for his defense. He’s supposed to be at least passable in center and above average in the corners. Perhaps he’ll come in late in the game as a defensive replacement late in games. As a left-handed hitter, he could serve as a platoon partner in left field for Austin Dean, but the Cards seem to prefer the alignment of Matt Carpenter at second, Tommy Edman in right and Justin Williams in left. Tyler O’Neill is eligible to be reinstated from the injured list on April 21st, so Hurst might not get much of a chance at least right now to make an impression.