It was reported on Monday afternoon that the Tigers have checked in on Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Alek Thomas in potential trade negotiations. The August 1 MLB trade deadline is swiftly approaching and the Tigers are poised to make a number of medium-stakes trades.
It’s no secret that Scott Harris will be fielding offers for Eduardo Rodriguez, Michael Lorenzen, Jason Foley, Alex Lange, and they’re probably willing to listen to just about any proposal that doesn’t involve Riley Greene. The DBacks aren’t a team that many Tigers fans had pointed to as a potential destination for Detroit’s trade pieces, but Thomas is an intriguing subject in a potential deal.
The specific connection between Detroit and Arizona was not first made by a beat reporter for either team, which is usually a bright red flag, especially this time of year. However, the account where the rumor was initiated — called Arizona Diamondbacks Stats & Info — is followed by a number of reputable media figures, and specifically cited an Arizona beat reporter named John Gambadoro as his source, factors that lend this idea at least a measure of credibility.
Keep in mind, though, that this is smokescreen season and even the best beat reporters often report on rumors that are never come close to actualizing. The fact that none of them have publicly latched onto this one makes it even sketchier yet. We’d also note that Scott Harris appears to run as tight a ship with his lieutenants as AJ Hinch. There have been precious few hints of specific rumors over the past two weeks. So don’t get too carried away with this one.
Thomas has been with the Diamondbacks since being drafted in the second round in 2018. His progress through the minor leagues was a bit of a slow burn, but it’s finally bearing fruit for Arizona. Thomas became a consensus top-100 prospect and exactly the prospect you’d hope for when drafting a tooled-up high schooler with a premium pick. He proved himself to be a capable hitter with more power than you’d expect from his thin 5-foot-11-inch frame. Add in his above-average defense in center field and it’s clear why Arizona fans love this guy.
Thomas hit a speed bump during his rookie season in 2022. He has nothing left to prove in the minors, but he couldn’t quite make the leap to being a productive major leaguer. He finished last year with a 71 wRC+, buoying a 0.6 fWAR total on the strength of his defensive work.
He won the center field job again this year, but was pretty awful at the plate yet again to start the season. He was hitting .195/.252/.327 through the middle of may, when he was demoted to Triple-A to get himself right. Early returns seem to indicate that a hot stretch in the minors was exactly what the doctor ordered.
After returning to the MLB a month later, Thomas has been a force for good in the Arizona lineup. Hitting .300/.315/.511 in 28 games since being recalled has gone a long way to reestablishing himself as a part of the DBacks’ future. His upside is that of a good, controllable player at a premium position. That’s the kind of asset that general managers dream of acquiring. At just 23, he’s still at an age where it’s easier to believe that his problems have workable solutions.
However, despite his 119 wRC+ in this recent stretch, it’s premature to say that he’s fully come into his own. If you tug at a few threads, there are some pretty concerning things about the way Thomas plays.
The one that jumps off the page most quickly for me is an inflated BABIP during his recent hot stretch. True, he’s an energetic baserunner and has the quickness to beat out a ground ball. That’s not enough to handwave the .396 BABIP that led to his beatdown of Triple-A pitching this year and .359 BABIP since being recalled. There’s clearly a measure of good luck there that will evaporate sooner or later, taking some of his hits away with it.
Thomas has always hit way too many ground balls and shows no sign of letting up. Over half of his batted balls have been on the ground for the third year in a row. That’s not unbalanced due to his rough start — each individual stint in the MLB and Triple-A has also resulted in ground balls at that rate. Thomas’ average launch angle is sitting at 2.8 on the season, well below the MLB average of 12.8, seeming to indicate that his swing simply isn’t geared to hit balls in the air.
Additionally, his breakout performance hasn’t been fueled by any obvious mechanical changes. Video from both before and after his 2023 demotion reveal a similar pre-swing load, leg kick, and swing as the end of last season.
My final point in this section was going to be Thomas’ low walk rate, but I think that pointing at his two walks in the last 28 games and saying “look, bad” is an oversimplification. Patience was never an issue for him in the minor leagues and several times he sported walk rates cresting ten percent. But now that he’s facing MLB pitchers, that rug has been yanked out from under him. So what gives?
Alek Thomas Plate Discipline
|MLB Average, 2023
These numbers are pretty revelatory. Relative to the average MLB hitter, Thomas is being thrown more pitches in the zone by a pretty wide margin. Pitchers know they don’t have to bait him outside the zone as much as they would other players. He’s pretty much in line with the average when it comes to pulling the trigger outside the zone, but Thomas is substantially more likely to watch a strike than the average MLB hitter.
There is a difference between having a really good eye, and simply being a patient or even passive hitter. Some hitting prospects may look disciplined due to good walk rates, but in the minors, a patient hitter without the best eye can often post big walk numbers by simply outwaiting a young pitcher’s inability to command their offspeed pitches. When they reach the bigs, major league pitchers may carve them up because they can spot their whole arsenal in the zone. Hitters can’t just take pitches knowing they’re likely to get a walk or a cookie is they’re patient enough. It seems like Thomas may be suffering from something similar.
I didn’t intend to dedicate such a large portion of this article to discussing the problems that could lead to Thomas being a flop. Even through the bad days, his high energy, flashes of power, and defensive prowess have kept the dream alive. Frankly, if he didn’t have these warts, Thomas would be on the untouchables list. If the Tigers think they can fix him and the price isn’t sky-high, they should go for it.
What makes him an odd fit in Detroit isn’t the problems detailed above, but the fact that he’s unlike the kinds of players Harris has relentlessly pursued since taking over in Detroit. He has spent nearly a year and a half in the major sand the track record shows that he doesn’t control the strike zone. If Harris is willing to overlook that, or thinks it can be corrected, everything else about Thomas matches up with what the Tigers need right now.
He’s a talent with upside at the plate and in the field. He has the potential to make the team better both immediately and through the prime years of the young core — Riley Greene, Tarik Skubal, Spencer Torkelson, Jake Rogers, etc. The Diamondbacks need controllable pitching, and while I’m not going to propose any particular trade, they could make the values match with a deal including any number of Tigers hurlers.
This doesn’t seem like a bad idea for the Tigers, but it depends what they’re giving up. Thomas is not a top 100 prospect anymore — he’s a guy with some skills who hasn’t put it together yet. That’s not really what we’re looking for as the core of a trade for Eduardo Rodriguez, but in a smaller deal, it could work.
What do you think?
Should the Tigers take a gamble on Alek Thomas?
This poll is closed
No, the value isn’t right
No, Thomas isn’t worth the attention