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Washington Nationals’ 2023 Roster: Versatile Lane Thomas part of future in D.C.

Lane Thomas has been hard at work trying to improve his defense since joining the Nats…

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline in 2021, Lane Thomas has taken advantage of the opportunity in D.C. to claim a spot as part of the next competitive club in the nation’s capital.

“I think that some people kind of looked sideways at us when we said that Lane Thomas was a piece of the future,” GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies in early September. “We always say the next championship-caliber club, a guy like Lane Thomas should be a part of it, because he’s a good hitter, specifically against left-handed pitching, he’s really coming around against right-handed pitching, he can play good defense, and he runs the bases well, he’s really fast.

“That’s a piece of a championship-caliber club.”

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins Photo by Bryan Cereijo/Getty Images

Thomas, 27, put up a .234/.301/.381 line against right-handed pitching this year, and a .253/.302/.441 line against lefties, with 17 doubles and nine home runs in 346 plate appearances vs righties, and nine doubles and eight homers in 202 PAs vs left-handed pitchers.

The versatile outfielder, who played 73 games in left, 56 in center, and 43 in right field, finished strong(er) at the plate too, with a .264/.330/.434 line in 64 games and 261 PAs after the All-Star break, following a .221/.275/.376 run in 82 games and 287 PAs in the first half of the season.

“He’s done well in all three outfield positions,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters as the 2022 season wound down.

“In right field he’s done exceptionally well. We saw him throwing. He comes and gets the ball really well. I think his first step definitely helped him out a lot. He’s getting better routes on the ball, which definitely helps him out as well, so but overall we’re still trying to get him aggressive out there, and he’s gotten a lot better this year. And I’m proud of him. Because he struggled in the beginning with everything and I’m proud of him working hard, and going out there and competing, and he’s done really well.”

The versatility he brings to the roster is a bonus, with Martinez able to confidently plug him into any spot in the outfield.

“To me it’s the fact that he can do all three and do it fairly well,” Martinez explained. “And he’s learning. He’s really learning how to play. He’s been a lot more aggressive, which we like, in all aspects of his game. Even the baserunning, the base-stealing, I’ve seen a lot of improvement with him. So moving forward that’s awesome for us. I mean, he’s really starting to [come into his own], I think he is only scratching the surface, I really do. I don’t think he knows yet who he really can be.”

The Nats’ skipper thinks Thomas can be a reliable defender, and a potential power threat at the plate.

“We know that the power numbers are there, we know that he can play all three outfield positions and do really well out there, now it’s just a matter of him continuing to get better,” the fifth-year manager said. “Continuing to learn how to really get on base for us, and he’s showing — every year he’s showing improvement. Like I said, since we’ve got him, his offensive numbers have been very impressive, and they’re going to get better. He’s had a good year. And I know we’re not done yet, but he’s done really well, and like I said, I’m looking forward to having him back here, getting a little bit stronger this winter, and getting him back in Spring Training and being able to put him in different places. It doesn’t matter where I put him in the outfield, he just loves playing.”

One particular area Thomas and the Nats have focused on is his defense near the outfield wall, an issue for the outfielder the club identified and has worked to address this season.

“Right now he’s getting back there,” Martinez said after Thomas made a catch at the wall late this season, “… which is great, because we’ve worked for a year now to get him not to be afraid of that wall.”

“He definitely made an improvement,” he’d said days earlier. “Before, he’d hit that warning track, and as we all know, we saw it, he’d play the ball off the wall. It’s definitely an improvement. He still needs to improve. I want him to be more aggressive in the outfield. I want him to take more chances. I want him to understand the game situations.

MLB: AUG 12 Padres at Nationals Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“We had an incident the other day in Atlanta, with two outs: A line drive base hit — those runs are going to score, right? I mean, the ball was hit, but take a chance there. I know that [Victor] Robles was going to be behind him. For me, he could have taken a chance right there, and tried to catch that ball, and things would have been a little bit different, we let up two runs. And I always tell him, I said, ‘If you don’t take those chances, you’ll never know if you can catch them or not.’ But he definitely has gotten better.

“I love the way he’s coming to get the ball on the ground. His throws have been unbelievable, he’s making great, accurate throws, so he definitely has improved, and moving forward, this guy is going to help us in the future. You see the power is there. We’d like him to be more aggressive at times, especially with runners in scoring position, but I think he’s done well.”