THIS IS A COUNTDOWN!!!!! Over the next forty-something days starting on February 12th and ending on March 28th, I will be rolling out my Top 35 prospects in the Cardinals organization. We call it "The Dirty Thirty-Five" because it's marketable, I think. Also, we call it that because my write-ups and evaluations are a little different. I’m kind of a quirky and goofy guy, and the evaluations fit that personality. I've already written about the four players that graduated off the list. I've also written about the guys that just missed the list. You should check those out because you're going to have questions about my sanity afterwards. The article about the guys that didn’t make the D35 is really freaking good. This list is my own. It's terrible. I'm fine with it. Remember, have fun with these lists. Ranking prospects is a joke, but it's fun so treat all of the prospect ranking accordingly.
Lane Thomas - Outfielder
Acquired in 2017 from Toronto for International Bonus Money
AAA Memphis & St. Louis
STATS AS OF 5-1-2019
EDITOR'S NOTE: We are at the part of the count down where things could get very interchangeable. From here, prospects 5-7 could really be in any order. This is the order that I settled on. I'll address a little more with prospects 1-4, because that's basically the same situation. ENJOY!
This story is a long and strange trip to prominence, and how a player can go from a fringe prospect to a potentially elite prospect in one offseason.
It's also the story of why you never give up on a high school-drafted player until they've quit the sport. Finally, it's the story of how often-injured players at the minor league level deserve a little extra time before a final verdict is made about their future.
Finding a starting spot for this one is tough. Do you start with his position history? Do you start with his injury history? His sudden power surge? The narrative possibilities are endless!! The local journo's are going to love him.
Before being traded to the Cardinals, the extremely athletic Thomas was moved around the field while in the Toronto organization. He was an gifted fielder all over the diamond at the high school level, and the Blue Jays were trying to find his best fit. However, the experimentation at third and second base didn't go so well (it didn't go awfully, it just didn't go well enough), and he's been a full-time outfielder since the start of the 2017 season, basically. Since making the full time transition two seasons ago, Thomas has become a very good outfielder.
Thomas has a very good arm that' fits right in the second tier of outfield arms in the system, right next to Dylan Carlson's and Randy Arozarena's. The only thing that stops it from being in the top tier in the organization is that it isn't quite on par with the Howitzer that Adolis Garcia has.
Watching Thomas play a corner outfield spot is an absolute joy, and I think that is where he profiles best. He judges flyballs that are slicing away from him so well, and he really can get to anything in the gap. I'm sure that you've seen it at this point, but this was one of the best defensive plays at any level of baseball during the 2018 season. It's a masterpiece:
Even in center, because of his speed and arm combo, he's a lot of fun to watch. The thing about Thomas in center field is, he has a tremendous burst off of his jump, and that allows him to make up for some of the balls that he misreads. I say that, but one positive that I noticed during his 32 game stint at Memphis was that he was playing a little deeper in center than he was during his early tenure in Springfield. That little adjustment really seemed to help him. This little adjustment was also a big key in Harrison Bader's development. Maybe that adjustment will be just enough to take Thomas to the next level like it did Bader.
I think that what I find most interesting about Thomas is the power surge that came during the 2018 season. It's not uncommon to see a player have a power spike in the Texas League, but the 21 home runs that he hit in 435 plate appearances out paced the 18 home runs that he hit over his prior four season's worth of 1,148 plate appearances.
An increase in power that substantial just doesn't happen that often. And it especially doesn't happen to a player built about 6'1" and 210 pounds. That's usually the type of power jump reserved for a player with a bigger body. I say that, but if you look at the .gif above of Thomas coming in on the ball, you'll notice a more svelte young man. He's still very lean, but every other .gif in this article will display how stout and strong he's become.
So, aside from the added muscle, how did it happen? Well, I can tell you for a fact that Thomas barrels everything, and he did well in 2018 to pull the ball for power more than in the past. Thomas doesn't possess elite bat speed or anything like that (although it is very good), he just does a great job of getting the head around and making contact where contact is needed. He doesn't scorch everything, but he does hit the ball damn hard. One thing that you'll notice throughout all of these .gif's is that his head never moves. In general, his body movements are quiet. There's a lot of leverage in that swing, as well.
Even more encouraging, the power that he displayed at AA transfered to AAA perfectly. There is no reason to believe that the power won't stick around. I personally don't believe that it'll stay in the 25-30 range, especially as pitchers start to realize that they can exploit him low and in. However, 20 to 25 home runs seems more-than doable! I can't help but see a bunch of 2016-ish Gregory Polanco-type offensive seasons in his future.
So, at this point, what do we have? We have a prospect with a little bit of helium. He's capable of handling center and hitting 20+ home runs, with a strikeout rate around 23% and a walk rate of 8.7% at the two highest levels of the minor leagues combined. He did this while playing at age appropriate levels. THIS is a very valuable asset.
Now, let's get to my favorite .gif in this hole sha-bang-a-bang. To you, it'll appear to be a gapper that Thomas turns into a triple. To me, as someone who ran the stop watch on this play, it's Thomas going from home to third, with a delay out of the box, in about 11.8 seconds. His in-game speed is "plus", and he runs the bases like a top-tier base runner. Sorry that the .gif isn't all 11.8 seconds. You're just going to have to take my word for it:
Now, Thomas is the perfect example of how being fast and a good base-runner doesn't make you a good base-stealer. He was successful 17 of 27 times last season, and that's just never been a strength in his game. Other than Tommy Edman, it isn't really a strength for anyone in the organization. I'll take a smart base runner of Thomas caliber any day of the week.
There are somethings about Thomas that do worry me. One, like I mentioned, was the defensive issues that I saw early in the season. Those seemed to be cleaned up, so "bully!!" to him. For that, one more time, watch this maniac go flying over the wall to make a catch!!
The next thing that I noticed during his time at AA that seemed to be cleared up by the time he made it to Memphis was, what I called, a "Jekyll and Hyde approach." There were times when Thomas' confidence was exuding. When that happened, you could see it. When Thomas is this confident version of himself, it is evident via the eyes test, the measureables, and the stats. This version of Thomas is capable of hitting pitches on the outside-half of the plate a mile or so past the wall in the right field gap. Don't believe me? Look at this ABSOLUTE SHOT:
Now, in regards to his time at AA, Thomas was this version of himself about half of the time. The other half of the time he clearly lacked confidence, and there was no masking it. He takes a ton of half-swings at the plate when he is in this mode. This is when you'll see him throwing his bat at the ball more than swinging it. When he's playing center, he let's the corner outfielders get the balls in the gaps that he should be taking charge of. It won't take much of a stretch of your imagination to understand that he usually struggles greatly when this version of Thomas is out there. We saw this version of Thomas a lot during May.
From April 29th to May 31st, Thomas hit 171/302/248 with two home runs and two doubles in 127 plate appearances. His walk rate over this period was an impressive 14.5%, but his strikeout rate was nearly 27%.
It's more than worth mentioning one more time that the AAA version of Thomas was all confidence, so hopefully that is his new normal. The visual cues are obvious for both the Jekyll and Hyde versions of Thomas, and I hope that it is something that others have picked up on. It won't take more than a few games of watching him to notice when he's struggling with confidence.
Thomas' 2018 season ended with a trip to the Arizona Fall League where his primary goal was to work on plate discipline and pitch tracking. I'd say that he accomplished that, walking 14 times in 78 plate appearances. One year prior, Oscar Mercado had the same goal during his turn in the AFL, and it paid off for him during the 2018 season. I expect this to also aid Thomas greatly, but with a better power profile to go along with an increased batter's-box-presence. There are plenty of comparisons to make with the rise of Mercado at Springfield during the 2017 and the rise of Thomas during the 2018 season. Mercilessly, that's an article for a different day. Aside from Tyler O'Neill, Thomas (who is now on the 40-man roster) appears to be the potential relief option for the Cardinals if Harrison Bader struggles in 2019.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Lane Thomas is a very athletic young man that has overcome a handful of injuries and a little position jockeying to become a late blooming power prospect. A capable center fielder with surprise power that isn't going anywhere, Thomas is poised to make a major league impact in 2019 if he can continue to be the confident player that he has shown to be when he is at his most successful. His 2019 season at Memphis will hopefully give us a better idea of how sustainable his stats will be. The Cardinals have a potential impact outfielder if he continues to demonstrate what he did during the 2018 season. If you are going to use International Bonus Pool Money to acquire a player, you'd be hard-pressed to land a player as good as Thomas. Such a great use of resources!!
MAY 1st UPDATE
It was kind of a tough start for Thomas at Memphis, but he definitely made the best of his small opportunity with the Cardinals. In limited action with St. Louis, he showed off nearly every skill that will make him a viable outfield option for the Cardinals in the coming season.
Thank you to FanGraphs for being our one-stop shop for stats.
Thanks For Reading!!