PORTLAND, Maine — Versatility can be an important ingredient in success.
Portland Sea Dogs left fielder Tony Thomas is banking on it.
Thomas is an infielder by trade, primarily a second baseman, but during the last week of spring training, the Red Sox brass told him they would like him to learn to play the outfield.
He played for Pawtucket in the AAA International League last season, but Thomas said there were a lot of top (infield) prospects there this season. The Red Sox told him he “wasn’t going to play every day in Pawtucket and they needed me to be playing every day.”
So they sent Thomas to the Sea Dogs as an outfielder.
And he embraced it.
“If I can prove I can play the outfield, it can raise my stock,” said Thomas.
There have been some growing pains, but he is getting more comfortable with every game.
“You have a little more time than you think you have,” said Thomas. “It’s more fast-paced and quick in the infield. In the outfield, you have more time to read where the ball is going.”
He has made seven errors, but most of them occurred earlier in the season.
“On most of them, I rushed things. I was trying to make the right play or I overthrew the ball or threw it to the wrong base,” explained Thomas. “Sometimes, you’ll go a whole game without getting a ball hit to you. But you’ve always got to be ready.”
Sea Dogs manager Kevin Boles said Thomas is becoming a solid outfielder.
“He can run, and he can cover ground,” said Boles. “He has been getting a better jump on the ball and has been running cleaner routes to the ball.”
Boles said being able to play multiple positions is very important. He said he has been impressed by Thomas’s offensive approach.
“It’s hasn’t affected him offensively,” said Boles. “Sometimes, when someone is learning a new position, you’ll see a dip in their offense.”
Thomas leads the Sea Dogs in runs batted in (26), doubles (13), triples (5) and total bases (70). He has hit three homers.
One statistic that bothers him is his strikeouts. He shares the team lead with 35 in 143 at-bats.
“As long as you put the ball in play, good things can happen,” he said. “You might find a hole and get a base hit. I have decent speed so I might be able to beat (a grounder) out. It could mean an extra 10-12 hits a year.”
“He’s always doing something to help the team,” said Boles. “He’ll put a bunt down or move the baserunners,” said Boles.
He said Thomas tried to force things but has been more patient lately.
“He’s an aggressive hitter. But he has really managed the strike zone (lately) and he has been using all fields.”
Entering Friday night’s home game against Binghamton, Thomas had hit .317 over his previous 10 games to raise his average to .266.
Thomas is only 26, but he is already in his sixth pro season after being drafted in the third round by the Chicago Cubs out of Florida State University in 2007.
“It’s crazy. I was thinking about that the other day. It seems like I’ve been playing this (professional baseball) a long time,” he said.
He had been the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year in 2007 when he hit .430 and became the first player in school history to notch 100 hits, 30 doubles and 30 stolen bases in one season.
He was the national player of the year and a first-team All-American as chosen by Collegiate Baseball and Rivals.com. He was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy, two other college player of the year awards.
Thomas has moved up the minor league ranks and had his best season for Tennessee in the AA Southern League in 2010 when he hit .276 with 11 homers, 29 doubles, 11 triples and 73 RBIs.
He was second in the league in triples and fourth in slugging percentage (.485) and also led second basemen in fielding percentage at .973.
He was traded to the Red Sox by the Cubs for pitcher Robert Coello on Feb. 11, 2011.
“The Cubs drafted me. I’ll always have love for them. But I’m definitely glad the Red Sox picked me up. I love the coaches and the players and they treat the players very well,” said Thomas.
Thomas, a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder from Valrico, Fla., inherited some athletic talent.
His father, Tony Sr., played baseball at Southern University (La.) and his uncle, Maurice Hurst, was a cornerback for seven years for the New England Patriots.
Boles said Thomas is a terrific person with a top-notch work ethic. He feels Thomas will play in the major leagues someday.
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Boles.
“Every day, I feel like I’m getting closer,” said Thomas, who added that he enjoys playing in Portland in front of the replica of Fenway Park in Boston’s Green Monster (left-field wall).
“It’s awesome,” said Thomas.