Thomas out to prove his worth as Nats mull future outfield originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
WASHINGTON — The Nationals may not have the roster of a contending team, but they do already have some key pieces in place for 2023 and beyond.
Luis García and C.J. Abrams are entrenched in the middle infield spots. Keibert Ruiz, though currently sidelined, is a lock to be their starting catcher. MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli and Josiah Gray all figure to occupy rotation spots. Bullpen pieces Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr. and Mason Thompson are among several relievers under control for next year and beyond.
The outfield, however, is wide open. Never mind the hole Juan Soto left behind in right field, especially with Joey Meneses filling it so well. Center fielder Victor Robles hasn’t been able to recapture the success he had as a rookie in 2019. Left field has been a revolving door all year.
One of the biggest benefactors from the Nationals’ outfield uncertainty has been Lane Thomas, who has caught fire since being moved into up to leadoff Sept. 1 with a .367/.446/.551 slash line in 11 games entering Tuesday’s series opener against the Orioles. Thomas has hit in the No. 1 spot before, but this is the longest stretch he’s seen at the top of the lineup this season.
“I think I had some success there last year and I felt like honestly I hadn’t been hitting very well when I would leadoff randomly until lately,” Thomas said. “It’s just been nice to get a few more at-bats while you’re also feeling really good at the plate.”
Acquired in the Jon Lester trade deadline deal with the St. Louis Cardinals last year, Thomas has since hit .259 with 22 home runs and a .769 OPS in 171 games. He’s exceeded all expectations for a player who was traded for a struggling starting pitcher at the end of his career, but Thomas isn’t in Washington trying to justify the trade. He wants to make the club next season and help the team rise from the depths of the rebuild it’s mired in.
Even if the Nationals acquire an outfielder or two this offseason, Thomas will have a case to crack their roster in 2023. Though he doesn’t hit the ball very hard, he has shown some sneaky pop and even put together a three-homer game this season. Thomas also has game-changing speed and can play all three outfield positions.
“We’re looking for players,” Martinez said in his pregame press conference Tuesday. “We need players…These guys gotta understand, come next year we gotta field a team. We’re gonna take the 26 best guys, as [Mike] Rizzo always says, and as I always look for the 26 best guys. So these guys are getting an opportunity to show us what they can do and this way we have an idea of what we want to do in spring training.”
With the playing time he’s received in 2021, the Nationals have had a chance to figure out what kind of player Thomas is at the major-league level. So has he.
“I think just a little bit more aware of the player that I’m capable of,” Thomas said of the biggest lesson he’s learned in D.C. “Just gives me a little more confidence because I feel like I was coming in here fresh and not really had played a whole lot in the big leagues in the past and now it’s — with 500 at-bats under my belt…I’ve done some good things and shown what I can do it’s just being more consistent with those things.”
Should he remain in the leadoff spot, Thomas will get the opportunity to rack up more at-bats than anyone else on the team the rest of the season. Martinez hopes he will use those chances to work on being aggressive at the plate; he’s spoken at multiple points this season how Thomas does his best damage on fastballs early in counts.
Thomas understands that he’s in a competition for a roster spot in 2023. Even amid his recent hot streak, he’s trying not to get too ahead of himself.
“Any time you get comfortable, I think it’s a bad thing,” Thomas said. “You’re always trying to prove your worth, I guess that makes sense. So yeah, just take every day like it’s not given to you. It’s definitely important just to go out and try to compete for your spot every day. Even if you are playing well at the time, it can always get taken away.”