Lane Thomas: a Position Player Version of John Lannan for the Next Nationals Window?

There has been considerable chatter pre- (and now post-) 2023 trade deadline about Lane Thomas. He’s been having a great 2023 (topped off by his enduring appreciation for the Great American SmallPark in Cincinnati). This led to two extreme positions offered by the chatterati:

– Extend him! Why go looking for a new Jason Werth when we already have one on the team now?

– Trade him! He’s over-performing now, and in any case a free agent in 2026 so he will not be part of the NextNats hopeful championship window. And his value may never be higher. Long term pieces are what a rebuilding team needs!

There is a third way which is to do something Lannan-esque, and FWIW, I think it’s the one on general manager Mike Rizzo’s mind. Have LT be an OF version of John Lannan for the rising Nats — good enough to help the team rise up, while (hopefully) supplanted by higher-end talent by 2026. Especially since by 2026, the kidz will be paid at the MLB minimum while LT will deserve to be paid as a starter, not a 4th OF.

Lane is helping the Nats win games in 2023 and can continue to do so in 2024-25 if he maintains current performance. That’s useful because teams rarely jump from 65 to 95 wins. The 2009-2012 Nationals went 59 wins (2009) to 69 (2010) to 80 (2011) to 98 (!) in 2012. The last jump was huge, but matching the 2022 Nats to the 2009 Nats would make 2023 “2010.” And we will indeed be doing pretty well if we get 69 wins by the end of the 2023 season.

If one views 2024 as “2011” and 2025 as “2012” (which may be optimistic but is not out of the question either) we will still need support from OldNats during the ascent. The OldNats were players who were good on the bad teams and still able to help as the team rose into contention. Some stayed with the club during part or all (Zim!) of the 2012-2019 window. But there were others who contributed to the rise while fading away as the window opened up.

Remember “Bambi” (John Lannan)? Opening Day starter for those awful 2009-2010 teams. Still valued part of rotation in 2011 (10-13, 3.70 ERA, 184 IP)?

Yet the Nats 2008 and 2009 Opening Day starter found himself bumped to AAA until the Strasburg shutdown in 2012. Not because he was worse. Although at times his nibbling could drive us all crazy John Lannan remained a credible MLB starting pitcher. In 2012 down the stretch he provided a critical 4-1 record as Strasburg’s post-shut-down replacement, helping seal the division against the onrushing Braves. Bambi didn’t get worse, but the Nationals team got BETTER.

Lane may be viewed as the same kind of guy as Bambi, but his free agent year of 2026 may be better timing from Lane’s point of view than Lannan’s.

Looking ahead, the Nats will be happy if James Wood is ready by OD 2024 (realistic, not a sure thing) and Dylan Crews by OD 2025.

That means Thomas will definitely be a starter for OD 2024 barring trade/injury/regression. And we’ll need players like him on the 2024 Nationals to play well/set an example for the kidz in a season the Nationals hope to be our “2011” (80-82 wins is not a small jump from 65-70).

Lane’s status for OD 2025 will depend on whether the 2025 Nationals have a third starting MLB OF from the talented but unproven pool of:

Robert Hassell III (can he recover from hamate injury?)

Elijah Green (K rate. Ow, that K rate. When he hits it the ball STAYS hit. Good fielder, great runner, massive power, terrific arm. Did I mention the 50% K rate?)

Andrew Pinckney (Off to a stupidly hot start in his first week at Fredericksburg. Yes, it’s also ridiculously SSS but Pinckney’s intriguing 3-3 vs Paul Skenes including a HR at least suggests Pinckney can hit quality pitching) with others like Cristhian Vaquero, Jeremy De La Rosa and Daylen Lile in the pipeline as well.

Yes, some *will* flame out. Bank on it. But will they *all* flame out? That’s *six* potential OF to fill that one slot beside Crews/Wood ! Being ready by 2025, though, is another question. They’re all a long way off right now.

So Thomas (turns 30 in August 2025) is likely to still be a Nats starter on Opening Day 2025 along with Crews and Wood. Whether he stays there depends on his own performance (of course) as well as how RH3-Green-Pinckney-Vaquero-De La Rosa-Lile are doing.

Key point is by 2025 the Nats hope to no longer be a “rebuilding” team. The new window will be opening and while a 2012-like surge to 98 wins seems a bit much (hey, we can dream…) getting to 90-92 wins and WC contention is a likely 2025 team target.

Thomas in 2025 can be part of the first year of the Nats shifting to “win now”–so trading him before then actually *subtracts* from the projected first year of the NextGen Nats window.

Trading Lane while deferring the start of that next window to 2026 would also matter because parts of the new core will be starting to approach/reach free agency by the late 2020s. Absent extensions (and the PLAYERS must agree to extensions, so Nats cannot assume extensions will happen even if they very much want them):

MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray become free agents after the 2027 season.

Cade Cavalli and CJ Abrams become free agents after the 2028 season.

Yes, we want to extend them. The fact that the Nationals have extended control of Keibert Ruiz through 2030 (team options for 2031-32) is a clear “tell” the Nationals ARE and WILL be trying to extend their young players in a way they simply could not during the 2012-19 window (separate argument).

But since the *PLAYERS* ultimately decide whether they extend, the Nationals *MUST* plan assuming they will depart via free agency unless/until the player(s) agree to an extension.

So trading away Thomas before the 2025 season potentially takes away WAR from a Nationals team that should be going for it to maximize advantage from its current NextGen core.

On to 2026 when Lane Thomas is a free agent. From the Nationals planning point of view, by 2026 at least one of that list above should be MLB-ready along with Crews and Wood (or if one of Crews/Woods flame out, two of the above. If both Crews and Woods flame out the Nats will have bigger problems that what is to be done with LT!).

Unless signed to a long-term extension all of the above players will be making at/near MLB minimum salary (and if extended they will be making $8-$25M/year…also taking away money from the pool Lane Thomas would be looking for).

By 2026 LT will expect (and DESERVE) to be paid like a quality MLB starting OF. And 2026 will be his age 31 season, so still arguably near his peak.

Looking to 2026 does it make sense for the Nats to commit $12-15M or more per year to Lane Thomas as an extra OF for 2026 and beyond? During a “win-now” cycle when the Nats will want to be putting money into starting pitching (high-end free agents, Stras through 2026 and maybe extensions for Cavalli/Gore/Gray), relief pitching (always a need for pretty much any contending ballclub), hopefully extending some of the NewNats core position players as well as meeting other needs we don’t yet know? Arguably, NO.

Looking to 2025 does it make sense for the Nationals to get rid of an age-30 player who could provide near-All-Star level OF play as well as providing an example to the New Kidz as the Nats climb up towards (2024) and hopefully into (2025) playoff contention? Again, arguably NO.

Not unless someone offers a pretty good package in exchange. The 2025 team will need above-average MLB players in as many positions as possible to compete in 2025. While Lane may regress he’s more certain for 2025 than the next six guys in the pipeline who aren’t close to MLB ready right now.

This is where I think Rizzo is. It’s certainly consistent with his public remarks about trading Thomas as well as his remarks about being “tired of losing” and ready to win.

If a team offers a package for LT for a near-All Star regular then, YES, Rizzo makes that trade. Could include a near-MLB-ready starting pitcher, which is one of the Nationals big needs right now and looking to/beyond 2025.

But if not, then Lane Thomas could be like John Lannan with the 2011-12 Nats. A quality contributor from the ‘OldNats” that brings the team up from the ashes and to the edge of contention.

And if the timing above holds up, hitting free agency in 2026 could allow Lane to get the contract he deserves. A win-win for both player and team.

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