PLAYER REVIEW: LANE THOMAS
Age on opening day 2022: 26
How acquired: Traded from Cardinals for Jon Lester, July 2021
MLB service time: 2 years, 14 days
2021 salary: $570,500
Contract status: Under team control, arbitration-eligible in 2023, free agent in 2026
2021 stats (STL/WSH): 77 G, 264 PA, 226 AB, 35 R, 53 H, 15 2B, 2 3B, 7 HR, 28 RBI, 6 SB, 3 CS, 37 BB, 63 SO, .235 AVG, .341 OBP, .412 SLG, .752 OPS, 107 OPS+, minus-2 DRS, 0.6 fWAR, 0.9 bWAR
Quotable: “At the end of the day, I always knew I could play. It’s just getting the opportunity and running with it.” - Thomas
2021 analysis: The Nationals’ final move prior to the trade deadline was the most unexpected one of the bunch. They sent a seemingly fading Jon Lester to the seemingly out-of-contention Cardinals for Lane Thomas, who seemingly profiled at best to be a fourth or fifth outfielder in the big leagues. By season’s end, everyone’s feelings about the trade had changed in dramatic fashion.
Lester actually did help St. Louis reach the National League wild card game. But more importantly, Thomas not only played well enough to be a backup outfielder but took over as the Nats’ starting center fielder and leadoff man, with Victor Robles demoted to Triple-A in the process.
How did Thomas do this in such short order? He finally put together all of the skills the Cardinals knew he had but he’d yet to display in long enough spurts. He showed a keen eye at the plate, increasing his walk rate to a healthy 13.1 percent. He made contact when he swung, reducing his strikeout rate to 22.3 percent. And he hit the ball with authority, with a 48.5 percent hard-hit rate that was miles above the league average.
Put that all together, and in 45 games with the Nationals, Thomas hit .270/.364/.489, combining contact, speed and power to go along with solid defense and make himself in a highly productive leadoff hitter for a rebuilding club.
2022 outlook: The Nationals couldn’t have realistically envisioned Thomas as their leadoff-hitting center fielder at the time of the trade, but that’s where they now find themselves heading into the offseason. They do, however, have to be careful not to just assume this is the player he’s going to be for the long haul. It’s still a relatively small sample of success, and the league now has more of a book on him than it did in August and September.
There’s also a chance Thomas opens next season in left field, not center field, if Robles returns from his awful 2021 and looks like a different player in spring training. He’s the superior defensive outfielder, so Thomas would be the one shifting to a corner position in that scenario.
Still, you’ve got to believe he’s going to be in the opening day lineup somewhere, regardless, given his performance after the trade. He will need to clean some things up, though, to ensure he stays in the lineup. Particular attention must be paid to baserunning after he was caught stealing twice, picked off once and made three more outs on the bases in only 45 games in D.C.
The Nationals have every reason to hope Thomas does pick up where he left off and establishes himself as a long-term part of the puzzle here. But even if he doesn’t do that, the fact he’s even a potential long-term answer at this point makes that trade among the best of general manager Mike Rizzo’s tenure.