As the return for struggling starter, Jon Lester, Lane Thomas already became a cult hero. In his Nationals debut though, he showed why the team targeted him…
At that point, they had traded away seven players and had seemingly squeezed everything they could out of their expiring contracts.
Six minutes after the deadline had passed though, news broke that the Nationals’ GM, Mike Rizzo, had one last deal in him.
Despite his lackluster performances on the mound this year, the Nats were able to flip Jon Lester to the St. Louis Cardinals at the eleventh hour— which is even weirder when you consider his past heroics with their arch-rival Chicago Cubs.
Perhaps more surprising than the fact they were able to even trade away a 37-year-old pitcher on an expiring contract who had a negative bWAR, was that it looks as though the Nationals may have even acquired a player who can contribute at the big league level.
That player was outfielder Lane Thomas, who made his Nationals debut on Sunday.
Coming into the season, Thomas ranked 9th on Baseball America’s Top 30 Cardinals prospects and already had two major league stints in St. Louis at the time.
In his first chance with the big league club in 2019, Thomas caught the eye with an impressive .316/.409/.684 slash line and 181 wRC+ in 44 plate appearances, most off the bench.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to repeat that success since.
After testing positive for COVID-19, right as the shortened season in 2020 was set to start, Thomas went on to slash .111/.200/.250 last year and .104/.259/.125 with the Cardinals this season.
Remember when Hernán Pérez stalked the mound after recording a strikeout for the Nats at Busch Stadium in April? Thomas was the batter that Pérez struck out, which sums up his woes.
His defense also appeared to suffer too as mental lapses crept into his game a little more, which was even more of a shock as a player who built a reputation as a great fielder in the minors.
That’s why the Nats were able to acquire him in the Lester trade. Thomas clearly dropped in the Cardinals front office’s estimations, and with an outfield roster crunch, he was the odd man out despite having two minor league options remaining.
When have the Cardinals ever traded away a young outfielder who has gone on to thrive away from St. Louis anyway? They would never trade away a player who would have one of the best postseasons in recent memory, or another who would go on to be a 2021 All-Star, and they definitely wouldn’t be the top two American League rookie position players in fWAR.
Despite his struggles in the major leagues the last two seasons, Nats skipper Dave Martinez still sees the potential that Thomas clearly once had coming up through the minors.
“He sprays the ball around,” Martinez explained before Sunday’s game.
“Hits the ball to right-center, left-center, moves the baseball, he can play left field, center field, right field, just a good all-around player.
“He’s got some speed, but we like the way he swings the bat. He was doing well in Triple-A, he came over he was doing well down there, so we’re going to give him an opportunity to play.”
In 13 at-bats with the team’s Triple-A affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings, Thomas went 5-for-13 with a home run and a double. He also notched a walk-off single in his last game for the Red Wings before joining the Nats’ taxi squad in Atlanta last weekend.
Because of the infamy of Lester’s stint in D.C., some Nationals fans tracked every one of those 13 at-bats with tempered excitement that, despite Lester’s awful season, Thomas could still become a surprise silver lining from signing the former Cub.
In his first appearance for the big league club, Thomas batted second and went 2-for-4 with a walk and a pair of singles, both of which were classed as hard-hit leaving his bat above 95mph.
It was just the first of what could be a healthy number of appearances for the outfielder, who the Nationals coaching staff and front office no doubt want a longer look at with the team way out of contention this season.
“I want to give him an opportunity to play, especially against left-handers,” Martinez said.
“I want to see him play. We had him up here — he traveled with us. I kind of like his swing, I like the way he goes about — his work ethic was great, so we’re going to give him an opportunity to play some here in this next month.”
Thomas should now compete for playing time in left and center field with Victor Robles, Gerardo Parra, Yadiel Hernández, and Andrew Stevenson, while Juan Soto locks down right field.
Other than Soto, and possibly Robles, none of the other outfielders on the roster appear guaranteed of a significant role with the team beyond this season.
Thomas arguably has the highest upside of the rest if he can put it all together again and now has the opportunity with a new organization to show that he’s put the major league struggles from the past two seasons behind him.
Maybe Thomas will rediscover his potential with the Nationals, maybe he won’t.
Regardless, it won’t take much for him to clear the low bar that Lester set during his time in Washington…