Acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in a July 30, 2021 trade for veteran starter Jon Lester, 26-year-old outfielder Lane Thomas, who’d put up a .104/.259/.125 line given inconsistent at-bats last season with the Cards, got a big opportunity to play for the Washington Nationals over the final two months of his third big league campaign, and he took advantage of it.
Thomas went 5 for 13 in three games with the Nationals’ top minor league affiliate in Triple-A Rochester, then came up to the majors, and finished the year with a .270/.364/.489 run over his final 45 games and 206 plate appearances between mid-August and early October as an (essentially) everyday center fielder in D.C.
With his play following the trade, Thomas put himself in the mix for the 2022 Nats’ outfield, and his manager, Davey Martinez, placed him in the field competing for the center and left field jobs since an outfielder named Juan Soto figures to be playing right field in the nation’s capital, at least when he is healthy, for at least the next three seasons.
Thomas, Victor Robles, (who struggled in 2020 and ‘21 and finished the season in Triple-A last summer), Andrew Stevenson, Yadiel Hernández, and Gerardo Parra (and, eventually, probably, Donovan Casey) will compete for at-bats this spring and likely during the season.
“They’ve got to compete for a job,” in Spring Training, Nats’ manager Davey Martinez told reporters on the first day of camp on Sunday in West Palm Beach, FL’s FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
“Robles, Yadi, Lane, all those guys, so it will be a fun competition,” he added.
“We’re going to watch these guys carefully and we’re going to break camp with the best team we can possibly have.”
Coming into the 2022 season, Thomas knows, he’s got a good opportunity to play regularly in the majors with the Nationals, and the significance of the chance he has before him isn’t lost on the 2014 5th Round pick (by the Toronto Blue Jays, who traded him to St. Louis back in 2017).
“I think the opportunity, what you talk about is huge, so I’ve just tried to take it with a grain of salt and move forward in a positive way,” Thomas said in his first press conference of the year from Florida, “and whatever role or situation I’m in just accept it and do what’s better for the team, and hopefully I can keep contributing, and do my part and help us win some games.”
As he said at the end of his 2021 run with the Nats, he thought most of his success was the result of just getting consistent at-bats.
“I think it goes back to just the opportunity, I think in St. Louis I never got the opportunity to play consistently,” he explained. “I’d start a couple games in a row, and taking a couple at-bats every week is a lot different than being able to play for a whole week straight and get comfortable facing consistent arms and playing every single day.”
The momentum that Thomas built up over the final weeks of the season last year gave him a boost as he got down to the business of preparing for 2022 — while waiting out the lockout until late last week — and trying to get into as good shape as possible heading into the 162-game marathon of a season.
“I think going into the last few Spring Trainings, I knew kind of the role that I was going to be in,” Thomas said, “... and the last — I played for — I don’t know, the last 50 games, or whatever the number is, and I just wanted to make sure that I could go play 160 [games] if I’m asked, so I really focused on where I felt bad you know, like my legs, and I had like a forearm deal where I’m just — you swing a lot, so your stuff starts to break down, so I just tried to build off that, and work with our strength staff and physical therapy, and just make sure I’m ready to roll, so stuff like that, you can’t stop all that stuff, but prevent most of it down the stretch.”
His focus this offseason, Thomas said, was on improving his defensive game, with a focus on some suggestions he received from the Nationals, and from his own agent.
“I think just trying to build off stuff last year that I thought I needed to work on, some certain stuff,” he said.
“I talked to my agent about some analytical stuff on defense, and just tried to work on stuff he thought I should improve on.
“Just polish up a few things and kind of build off what we were doing last year.”
What, specifically, was he working on defensively?
“Going back to my left, you know, just cleaning up some routes, and really just polishing up all the fundamental stuff,” Thomas said, “... like ground balls, and throwing, because I know that normally we would be down here a lot longer and we can work on that stuff, so I was just making sure that I was doing that stuff a lot at least the last two or three weeks before we ended up coming down, so I just wanted to get that under my belt, so when we did — we’re starting games Friday, so I have to make some throws hopefully, pretty quick.”
“It’s all based on how he sets up,” his skipper said, “how he — and that’s one thing we worked on.
“He used to set up kind of catty-corner, a little bit, so we’re trying to get him set up straight to home plate so that he can shift left to right a lot more easily, so it won’t be as difficult.”
When they do start games, Thomas’s manager said, he is going to get plenty of at-bats and a chance to show the club he’s ready for an everyday role.
“He’s going to play some center, he’s going to play some left field. We did tell him that we wanted him to get better on his first step, and reading balls, and he’s done that, and I see him, already today, he was working with [First Base Coach (and former big league outfielder) Eric Young, Jr.] on some things, but obviously he had a great year for us last year hitting-wise, and he just — like I said — he just wanted to get better all around. I see him as a guy that could potentially steal some bases for us, and one thing I tell him all the time, I said, ‘Hey, you got to remember to stick to what you do best, and that’s don’t worry about hitting home runs, hitting doubles, and the way he swings the bat, the homers will come, and I watched him take BP today, and he was swinging the bat really well. We’re going to continue to work with him on defense. He did get better last year a little bit. I know he talked about it — about getting better, so, but he’s willing to put the work in, and we’re willing to help him, but like I said, he’ll play left, he’ll play center, we’re going to put him in both, but he can swing the bat.”
Martinez said on Sunday that he wants Robles to fight back and claim the center field job, and if he does, the opportunity this year might be in left for Thomas, which is fine by him.
“Yeah, absolutely, yeah, whatever they ask,” Thomas said.
“The thing now is him playing left field, we got to get him comfortable playing over there,” the Nats’ skipper added.
“For me, the balls get to you a lot quicker in left field than it does in center field, so we’ve got to get him over there and get him some work.”