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VOL. 133 | NO. 157 | Thursday, August 9, 2018

Redbirds Roster Changing Again As Cardinals Revamp Outfield

Pete Wickham

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Another week, another makeover for the Memphis Redbirds’ roster. Nothing new. After the St. Louis Cardinals used the trade deadline to restock and reconfigure the farm system creating opportunities for prospects, the Redbirds’ outfield got a fast remodel.

Redbirds outfielder Justin Williams snags a short pop fly past first base during the Redbirds game against the Fresno Grizzlies on Aug. 4, 2018. (Daily News/Jim Weber)

So far, indications are promising with 22-year-old newcomers Lane Thomas and Justin Williams, who have stepped into the void created by an August two-step.

First to leave was Tyler O’Neill, whose home run bat helped carry the ‘Birds through the first half of the season. The parent St. Louis Cardinals created an opening for him when they traded Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay. But O’Neill tweaked a groin muscle over the weekend and gone was Aroldis Garcia, hours after being named the Pacific Coast League’s Player of the Month for July. The pair combined for 47 homers, about a third of Memphis’ total this season.

It was already a breakout season for Thomas, a former fifth-round draft pick the Cardinals picked up from Toronto last year to add organization depth. The Knoxville resident was hitting .260 with 21 homers and 67 RBI at Double-A Springfield and was a Texas League All-Star.

Redbirds outfielder Lane Thomas signs autographs before the Redbirds-Fresno game. (Daily News/Jim Weber)

He’s opened with an eight-game hitting streak in Memphis -- 14-of-37 (.378) with seven doubles, two homers, seven RBI and a gaudy on base-plus-slugging (OPS) percentage of 1.135.

“Lane is a like a (Harrison) Bader 1.0 right now,” Redbirds’ manager Stubby Clapp said, referring to the Cardinals’ current centerfielder. “Thomas has speed, power, hittability, plays great defense in centerfield and is learning to use his speed on the bases.”

The reason for a breakout? Thomas said, at last, he wasn’t breaking down.

“This past winter, for the first time, I was healthy enough to put in a good workout program,” said Thomas, who has battled back from a broken foot, broken wrist and a ligament pull. “I finally got to spring training with my feet under me.”

Williams, from Houma, La., was a key to the Pham trade, the Cardinals looking to add lefthanded bats to the prospect mix. A second-round pick that Arizona traded to Tampa Bay in 2015, Williams was an All-Star at Double-A Montgomery last year and Triple-A Durham this season. He also got a one-night coffee stop with the Rays days before being dealt.

“That night is motivating me to work harder, knowing it’s there,” said Williams, who went 0-for-1. “Being in a major league stadium in the regular season, in the dugout, I never imagined that until it happened.”

Williams has struggled at the plate this season. At Durham he was hitting 40 points below his career batting mark of .299, with nine homers, 48 RBI and 18 doubles. “The pitchers I’ve been facing have all been there, and all have a plan they stick to,” he said. “I have to adjust.”

The newcomers proved their worth during a 6-5 comeback win over potential playoff opponent Fresno on Sunday. The Grizzlies had jumped to a 5-0 lead, but Thomas fired the first salvo with a three-run homer in the fifth.

“Each time you’re in a new situation it’s a chance to prove yourself,” Thomas said.

“A hitter gets you three runs with one swing, and everyone feeds off it,” Williams said. “Down two runs doesn’t feel as impossible as being down five.”

Williams, who homered in a 9-3 loss Saturday, delivered a solid game-tying single in the eighth on a 3-2 pitch. “He can hit a baseball, He’s shown himself in clutch situations and it looks like he’s going to play a decent outfield,” Clapp said of Williams.

“Don’t have a book on him, and with a month left I’m not going to make elaborate critiques,” Clapp added. “I told him to just go play, show me what you’ve got and go have some fun.”

Williams admits he’s still trying to get comfortable in a totally new situation. “Lane at least knew some of the guys coming up through the Cardinal organization, and most of these players have developed together. I was hoping to just fit in.”

Only thing is, both he and Thomas are also now in range for family. And Williams’ first reunion was a touch unsettling.

“First night I get into the lineup -- and I’m not going to lie to you -- it felt weird. Like it was my first day of pro ball all over again,” Williams said. “I walk out on the field, and I hear someone shouting ‘JUSTIN!’ Turn around and it’s my Mom and my sister who decided to surprise me. And I’m thinking ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

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