Confident Late-Bloomer Stays In D.C.
“Lane [Thomas] is a 27-year-old player, I think that he’s a late-bloomer, he’s just starting to come into his own,” GM Mike Rizzo explained after Washington’s Nationals held on to their right fielder at the 2023 deadline. There was interest, but not the right deal.
“He’s had an All-Star-caliber first half this year, and we see his arrow still pointing north.”
While he has struggled in recent weeks, going 5 for 36 (.139/.184/.139) with one walk, 13 Ks, and no extra base hits in his last 10 games and 38 plate appearances, Thomas has put up a .282/.328/.464 line with 26 doubles, 16 home runs (one shy of his previous career high) in a total of 107 games and 463 PAs on the year, over which he’s been worth +1.9 fWAR, tops on the team now that Jeimer Candelario has been dealt (to the Chicago Cubs).
Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office were willing to listen to offers for the outfielder they acquired in a deadline deal with the Cardinals in 2021, but the right offer never really materialized.
“We went into the trade deadline with our eyes wide open with him,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C. Sports Junkies this past Wednesday, “and with other teams when they asked about him, and I would just tell them that we don’t see him as just an extra player or a platoon outfielder, we see him as an everyday guy.
“And if you see him as an everyday guy we’ll have a discussion about him, but if you see him as a good bench player or a good guy against left-handed pitching, that’s not the threshold that we’re looking to get back in return in a trade. So we had some interesting ideas and some concepts with teams, it just didn’t reach the threshold that we wanted to get with Lane.”
With his arrow still pointing north in the Nationals’ assessment and team control of Thomas for 2+ years, the GM in D.C. decided to hold on to one of a number of veterans on the roster along with the up-and-coming, next-gen Nats.
“We think this guy is going to be a good player for us,” Rizzo told the Junkies.
“We control him for two and a half years. And at 27 years old he’s been a guy that’s really kind of taken a leadership role in that outfield, and we wanted to make sure we had some good character veteran players to sprinkle in there with all the youth that we have.
“Because, in my opinion, you can’t just throw all 22-year-old, 23-year-old players on the field and expect for them to know how to play the game right and to conduct themselves like big leaguers. You have to sprinkle in that good character guy and I think we did that. That was part of the reason we did that with [not trading] [Kyle] Finnegan and with Thomas.
“Because of the culture in the clubhouse, and what Finnegan brought to the bullpen and his leadership there, and what Lane brought to the position player group.”
Both Rizzo and Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez talked on deadline day about Thomas and his growth since the club got him for Jon Lester, straight up, in the trade with the Cards.
“I think he’s getting better at a later age than most prospects do,” Rizzo said on Tuesday, after the deadline passed, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.
“He’s come leaps and bounds in just the short time we’ve had him here, and become a player we think is going to be part of us when we become good.”
Martinez noted how Thomas struggled in St. Louis, given an opportunity, but not consistent at-bats in the majors, and it started like that in Washington too, but things changed when he started getting regular playing time according to the manager.
“He started off very slow just kind of platooning a little bit,” Martinez said, “but not really getting an opportunity to play every day, and we got him here, we kind of did the same thing with him a little bit, and then got him to understand that he’s a guy that could probably play all three outfield positions, which he did, and then as he started playing more, for me I started seeing a different guy. A guy that could play every day. Needed a lot of work, and we talked to him about being more aggressive in the outfield, being more aggressive on the bases, and really trying to get your A-swing off every pitch, and he started doing it, and he got it.
“He’s become the guy that we see that can grind out at-bats, that could drive in runs for us, that he could hit the ball out of the ballpark, but he’s playing unbelievable right field for us, and I still think he can play center field for us down the line if need be. But he’s done really, really well, and filled a need for us up in the order by getting on base and driving in some runs for us. He’s been awesome. And I think that comes with a little bit of maturity, and a lot of confidence. He’s got a lot of confidence now, and I think he feels like he belongs here now.”
Mike Rizzo got a question from a fan during his latest visit wit the Sports Junkies, who asked the GM in D.C. what the club’s goals were for 2024:
“To win as many games as possible,” Rizzo explained, “... to have more of our young players ascend to the big leagues, and learn how to play the game, and to kinda mesh into a group that’s gonna be the next championship-caliber group.
“I never put expectations or a wins and loss number,” he continued. “I want to play good baseball, I’m there to win every baseball game we play. Today’s game is the most important game of the season, is what I tell the guys. Davey says ‘Let’s go 1-0.’ That’s his deal and that’s how we go about our business. You can’t — 162 [games] and a six-seven-month season, you can’t look that big of a picture, we have to focus in on not only today’s game, not only this inning, not only this [at-bat], but as Clayton Kershaw said when we were in LA, to me, he’s like ‘This thing, I go pitch-to-pitch. It’s not inning-to-inning, batter-to-batter, it’s pitch-to-pitch,’ and that’s the focus that you have to have as a big league player, and that’s what so difficult about this game, is because you’re playing every damn day, and there’s 200 pitches a game, and you have to be locked in 200 pitches a game, and it seems like when you lose focus for that pitch or two or batter or two, the ball finds you and you lose the game that way.”
• Parting ways with Jeimer Candelario was difficult for Davey Martinez and the Nationals’ clubhouse, and there were other players who thought they might get dealt as well, so it ended up being a relief when the trade deadline passed this past Tuesday afternoon. It’s stressful for everyone involved, and the day off on Thursday (following a series win over Milwaukee), was good for Washington’s ballclub.
“It’s going to be nice to actually have a day off tomorrow, it really is, but the boys responded well,” Martinez said after their walk-off win over the Brewers on Wednesday. “But like I said, and like I talked to them, we’re all going to miss Jeimer, but it gives somebody else an opportunity, and a new teammate, and obviously it was Jake Alu, who we know, we gave him an opportunity to play and he’s done well so far.”
In trading Candelario to Chicago (NL), the Nationals acquired two players, who were ranked 16th and 14th in the Cubs’ system by MLB Pipeline’s scouts before the deal, 22-year-old left-hander DJ Herz (16th) and 20-year-old shortstop Kevin Made (14th). Herz is currently ranked 17th in Washington’s system, with Made 16th.
“We got two really young players with a lot of upside,” GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies this week.
“We got a 22-year-old left-handed pitcher that’s striking out almost 12-13 players per nine innings, at 22 years old in Double-A already, we like that escalation, his name is Herz.”
Herz has 80 Ks in 59 IP (12.20 K/9) on the year (and 5.64 BB/9) at Double-A in the Cubs’ system.
“And Made, is a young, toolsy shortstop that can really play defense,” Rizzo added, “... and he’s got an outstanding throwing arm and we think the bat has potential for him to be an everyday player. So, he’s 20 years old in A-ball, and he’ll be going to Wilmington, and Herz will be going to Harrisburg.”
In the end, the Candelario market came down to two teams, and the Nationals’ liked the offer from the Cubs.
“When it got down to it, there [were] two serious contenders for him, and because of — positionally, and there wasn’t a lot of need for corner infielders, third and first with the contending teams — so the market shrunk, is what I’m trying to say, at the end. Two serious contenders were on him and the Cubs’ two young prospects were the guys that we liked the most. And we pulled the trigger.”