The Meteoric Rise and Staggering Fall of Lane Thomas

At one time, Lane Thomas was a fan favorite choice to start in the St. Louis Cardinals outfield.  Today, he’s on the outside looking in and wondering if he’s ever going to get another chance.

Let’s look at the backstory.  The Cardinals acquired Thomas from the Blue Jays in 2017 for international draft money.  The Cards got two other prospects (that never panned out), but Thomas was the most advanced as he was at High A that season.  St. Louis had him finish out the year at Palm Beach, where he hit .257 in nine games before getting injured.  He wound up ranked #11 on the Dirty Thirty-Five before the 2018 season before playing in Springfield and Memphis that season.

Some of the things that Kyle Reis said stand out quite starkly after the last couple of years.  I don’t think he’ll mind if I pull some quotes.

Man, am I torn on Lane Thomas. Maybe that’s because I feel like there are two versions of Thomas.

The first version is a potential major league starting center fielder with a bat and an approach at the plate that would look good at the top of the order. We saw this version of him at the start of the season. That version of Lane Thomas is a stud and he’s a lot of fun to watch. He hits for power and drives the ball to all parts of the field. He beats out infield singles and he can get to any ball in the outfield.

With that version of Lane Thomas comes another version of Lane Thomas. That version of Thomas is a player that looks as uncomfortable as you’ll see in the batters box. He’ll often take pitches right down the middle in hitters counts and check swing at everything else thrown to him. His position with his hands is usually inconsistent during this time. This version of Thomas is also shaky in the outfield. The best way to describe this version of Lane Thomas is “shaky and indecisive.” We’ve seen this version of Lane Thomas more often than not since the first month of the season……..

When Thomas isn’t dialed in, he is a liability. He’ll take half-swings and let pitchers get the better of him in hitters counts.

He tore up AA, hitting 21 homers, and he added six more long balls in Memphis.  Suddenly, he was on the map, right in the mix with other outfielders.

And there were a lot of other outfielders.  While Marcell Ozuna was in St. Louis, nobody necessarily expected him to be there past 2019.  There was a cluster of young guys though that were making things hard on the front office.  Thomas was joined by Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Randy Arozarena, and, hovering over them all, the oncoming presence of Dylan Carlson.

Which meant that, when given an opportunity, a young outfielder had to take advantage of it.  Thomas had a strong spring and when Bader went down with a hamstring strain, they brought Thomas up to make his debut on April 17.  He didn’t get an at bat that night, just coming in as a defensive replacement, but he got a chance to pinch-hit the next night and hit a two-run homer against the Mets for his first major league hit.  He continued to pinch-hit and continued to do well before finally getting a start on April 24, going two for three.

To that point, he was four for 10 with a homer, four RBI, and a stolen base.  Even those numbers didn’t spare him from being sent back to Memphis when Bader returned.  He came back up in May but appeared in two games as a defensive replacement before being sent back.  He came up in June and July but got only a couple of at bats.

He came up for good after the managerial change but still was mainly a pinch-hitter that did some spot starting.  Many were wondering why Thomas wasn’t getting more time out in the outfield, especially as Tommy Edman learned the position in the majors.  (This also went for Arozarena, but that’s a different topic.)  His first start after this promotion was August 11, which solidified the calls for him to be playing more regularly.  Thomas went two for five with a grand slam while the Cards were down three late.  It was a remarkable moment that didn’t pan out for more playing time.  From that blog post:

What you do know is that Lane Thomas has produced every time you’ve turned to him. He’s got all of 33 plate appearances but he’s hitting .367 with an OPS of 1.158 in that limited time. He has three home runs, including a huge grand slam that won a game last Sunday. The Cardinals have played six games since then. How many has Lane Thomas started? Two. The next night in Kansas City and yesterday against the Reds. (He went 3-7 in the two starts.) Thomas has been on the roster since July 30, with some appearances before then. He was here for a week back in April. If you don’t realize what you have with Thomas by now, you aren’t likely to ever know.

Between that game and when his season was cut short with injury, Thomas got two more starts.  He ended the year with a .316 average, four home runs in limited time, and the interest of much of the fan base.  I gave him an A in the Exit Interview series that year and it looked like Thomas was primed to push his way into the outfield picture in 2020.

As we all know, 2020 was….well, fill in your own adjective there.  Thomas was a late addition to the COVID contraction, acquiring it from Ryan Helsley after the club had returned to Memphis because the two shared an apartment and Helsley shared the virus before he knew he had it.  From all accounts, COVID hit Thomas hard.  I don’t know that he ever went to the hospital, but he was out until August 30 and when he did get back on the field, it seemed pretty clear he wasn’t all there.  There were some remarkably bad lapses in the outfield, specifically throws not made.  He hit just .111 with one home run in almost as many plate appearances as he’d had the year before.  I don’t know if the disease changed his standing within the organization, especially since they seemed to often point out his COVID diagnosis.  Whatever the case, Thomas’s status with the fan base fell like Tom Cruise in a Mission Impossible movie.

That brings us to now.  Thomas started off the spring strong, but fell off to a .216 average with no homers and wound up being sent to Sauget as the Cards chose John Nogowski over him.  He came up with O’Neill got hurt but has not covered himself in glory, which climaxed Wednesday in a rough game against the Nationals.  Now he’s back to Sauget as the club has felt the need to add Scott Hurst to not only the active roster but the 40-man as well.

At the end of 2019, the organization valued Thomas highly enough to apparently feel confident in trading Arozarena to the Rays.  A little over a year later, Thomas is enough of a liability that the club will use one of their few logistical options to bring another outfielder in.  (Man, that OF depth goes quickly when you trade two–or three, depending on how you count Jose Martinez–and let one walk to free agency in 12 months.)  Thomas wasn’t even being talked about as a legitimate backup to Harrison Bader in center.  Somehow Tommy Edman, a career infielder, was expected to play that position before Thomas was according to Shildt and John Mozeliak in spring.

It also makes you think that Thomas might have just blown the one chance he had.  Assuming O’Neill heals, the outfield then will be him, Carlson, and either Edman or Justin WilliamsAustin Dean is good as a seldom-used backup and Hurst, if he remains, could fill that role as well.  When Bader gets healthy (and that still seems a bit away) that outfield gets a little more crowded.  Thomas had a chance to get a run and see what he could do.  His play nipped that in the bud before it really got started.

I don’t know if I can remember anyone that’s gone boom to bust so quickly.  Perhaps the recent reputation swing of Matt Carpenter from 2018 to 2020, but even that’s a little different.  It’s extremely possible we won’t see Thomas again in a Cardinal uniform, with the last memories being misjudged balls in the outfield.  I think he probably does get another chance as a backup, but I could see an easy path to him being traded as some extra part of a deal later on this year.

Perhaps he can rise from the ashes like the phoenix.  I don’t know that I’d expect that, though.  He may always be a what-might-have-been had it not been for the pandemic.  The last lines may not have been written yet, but it sure feels like the book is running out of pages.

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