In the second round of the 2018 MLB draft, the Diamondbacks selected Alek Thomas, an outfielder from Mount Carmel High School in Chicago. Just 18 years old at the time, Thomas played 56 rookie ball games that year, 28 each on two different teams, hitting .333/.395/.463, wRC+ of 133, with a walk rate of 8.9% and strikeout rate of just 13.7%.
In 2019, he got bumped up to A-ball, playing 91 games and hitting .312/.393/.479. His walk and strikeout rates were 10.7% and 17.9%, culminating in a 153 wRC+. He got promoted to High-A that year and struggled a bit, which isn’t terribly surprising given that he was more than three years younger than the average age for that level. But it was also a small sample of just 23 games.
The pandemic wiped out the 2020 season but didn’t slow Thomas down at all. In 2021, he started his season in Double-A and played 72 games there, hitting ten home runs and stealing eight bases. Along with a walk rate of 11.2% and strikeout rate of 19.8%, he hit .283/.374/.507 for a wRC+ of 134. He got promoted to Triple-A and took his game up another notch. Despite his walk and strikeout rates slipping to 9% and 20.5%, he hit eight home runs in just 34 games, adding five steals, finishing with a line of .369/.434/.658, wRC+ of 168. Thomas is now considered one of the top prospects in the game, with Baseball America ranking him #32, MLB Pipeline #40 and FanGraphs #23.
Thomas, 22 years old in April, has little left to prove in the minors, having now shown himself capable of playing well at the top parts of the D-Backs’ system. One thing standing in his way is the fact that he’s not on the team’s 40-man roster yet, since he’s still a year away from Rule 5 eligibility. Furthermore, as with all top prospects nearing MLB readiness at this time of year, there’s the possibility that they won’t get promoted until they are held back long enough for the club to gain an extra year of control over them. Though there’s also the possibility that the service time rules change, as they are currently being negotiated as part of the next CBA.
Thomas has played all three outfield positions throughout his minor league career, but more in center than the corners. FanGraphs, however, sees him as more of a left fielder in the long term. Even with that move to a less-demanding defensive position, they still view him as a future above-average regular.
At the big league level, the outfield picture for the Diamondbacks is quite murky at the moment. David Peralta is likely to continue as the team’s primarily left fielder, though this is the final year of his extension and he turns 35 in August. He also had a mediocre season at the plate last season, putting up a wRC+ of just 93, his lowest in years. Taking all that into consideration, he might not be a part of the long-term picture.
The attempts to turn Ketel Marte into a center fielder didn’t really work out and he seems poised to return to full-time second base work going forward. Daulton Varsho is a baseball oddity, capable of switching between outfield and catching duties. He was behind the plate for 41 games last year but also saw time on the grass in 54 contests. He hasn’t fully established himself as an MLB hitter just yet, but is just 25 years old and has an excellent minor league track record. Pavin Smith is in a similar position to Varsho, hitting just below league average in his MLB time thus far. But he just turned 26 and has carried himself well in the minors. Josh VanMeter is in the picture but mostly as a bench/utility option. Jordan Luplow came over from the Rays in a trade just before the lockout. He’s likely to be primarily used in a platoon capacity, given his excellent career numbers against lefties and the fact that Peralta, Varsho and Smith all hit from the left side. Thomas is also a lefty, but actually hit southpaws better than righties last year. (1.073 OPS versus lefties and .909 against righties.) Cooper Hummel was added to the 40-man roster in November but has yet to make his MLB debut. Jake McCarthy and Stuart Fairchild are also on the roster, but each has less than 25 games of MLB experience. There’s also another highly-touted outfield prospect in Corbin Carroll, though he’s only reached High-A so far.
In short, there are a lot of options written in pencil, but none in ink. The Diamondbacks had a nightmare season in 2021, going 52-110, tied with the Orioles for the worst record in the majors. They share a division with strong teams like the Dodgers and Giants. The Padres have a decent chance of being much better this year than last. The Rockies plan on spending some money and competing this year. Arizona will need a lot of things to go right if they’re going to bridge the gap with their competitors, including Thomas, and a few of these other names, cementing themselves as mainstays in the outfield.