By Rob Rains
The broken bone in his wrist has healed. Lane Thomas is working out, is close to swinging a bat again and is preparing for what should be waiting for him when he arrives in Florida in February and the start of spring training.
A chance to win a starting job in the Cardinals’ outfield.
With the free agent departure of Marcell Ozuna, and the Cardinals’ stated desire to give their young outfielders an opportunity to earn more playing time next season, no member of that group is better positioned to do that than Thomas.
“Obviously it’s exciting to hear but we all know a lot of that stuff can change at any moment,” Thomas said by telephone from his home in Knoxville, Tenn. “I’m just kind of worrying about where my feet are and I’ll be ready to go once it’s time to head down there.”
Thomas saw his 2019 season cut short when he was hit by a pitch on his wrist in consecutive games on Aug. 26-27 in Milwaukee. It was a productive season for Thomas, even with a lack of playing time, and the Cardinals saw enough from him to value his potential.
Thomas, 24, started just four games for the Cardinals, appearing more often as a pinch-hitter or a late-inning defensive replacement. In his four starts, however, Thomas went 7-of-15 with a home run, a triple and six RBIs. He struck out only three times in 16 plate appearances.
Thomas also hit three home runs as a pinch-hitter, and turned in several outstanding defensive plays in the outfield.
His 2019 season also included 10 home runs, 17 doubles, 44 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 75 games at Triple A Memphis, a year after he led all Cardinals’ minor leaguers with 27 home runs and 88 RBIs in 2018, playing mostly at Double A Springfield.
The broken wrist came at a bad time for both Thomas and the Cardinals, likely costing him an opportunity to be on the postseason roster. The team’s outfielders not named Ozuna were a combined 11-of-62 in the playoffs with no home runs and seven RBIs. They struck out a combined 22 times.
In the four games in the NL Championship Series against the Nationals, including Ozuna, and Cardinals’ outfielders were a combined 8-of-40 with only three RBIs, striking out 18 times.
At the time, Thomas was back home in Knoxville, watching on television and beginning physical therapy for his broken wrist.
“You can’t look back on that stuff now,” Thomas said of losing his first chance to play in the postseason. “It’s always tough. I feel sure I could have contributed in certain situations but at the same time I wanted them to do as well as they could.”
What Thomas does look back on from the past season, and values, is his first exposure to the major leagues and how that knowledge will help him be prepared for what he hopes is more playing time next season.
“You can’t worry about, ‘Oh I should be playing every day,’” Thomas said. “I will do whatever they need me to do. I’ve always had that attitude. It helps you focus on where your feet are. If I’m pinch-hitting or playing defense I’m not thinking, ‘Oh I should have been playing from inning one.’ I have to worry about making a play that inning. If I have that mind set everything takes care of itself.”
That’s the same attitude Thomas will take with him into the spring, trying to focus on what he can control and not worrying about who else will be in the outfield competition.
Thomas has played with and observed all of the young outfielders the last couple of seasons, including Dylan Carlson, spending time with him in spring training and in instructional camps.
“We have an abundance of outfielders and all of them are ready to at least get their shot,” Thomas said. “I think the biggest thing is you have a lot of guys who are in the same situation. If they (the Cardinals) have a need for something else, that would be my only thing to look out for.
“I think if you put any of those guys in the situation they can contribute somehow. Everybody can play defense, everybody can run, throw and hit. I think it’s just hard to give six guys an opportunity.”
The current group of young outfield candidates includes Thomas, Carlson, Tyler O’Neill and Randy Arozarena who will be competing with returning starters Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler.
How many open spots there will be is a question that will be answered over the next three months.
One question Thomas answered for himself last year is the confirmation that he can play, and succeed, at the major-league level.
“You got there for a reason,” Thomas said. “You don’t have to do more than what they already have seen. You hear that from a lot of guys and it was just something I tried to think about … Do your job, and let the next guy do his job. I think that was something we did really well as a team. You don’t have to put all the pressure on yourself.”
Come February, Thomas will be ready to show he is ready to fill at least one of the outfield openings.
“Last spring my hip bothered me and a pulled muscle set me back a little bit,” he said. “I’m just making sure I am ready to take on the spring training load and be healthy for the season. That’s the most important thing.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports