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After scorching Arizona Fall League, lefty Connor Thomas earns spot on Cardinals’ 40-man

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Sporting a new cutter and a brand new season and league to use it, lefty Connor Thomas spent the fall rewriting his place in the Cardinals’ plans.

On Tuesday came the reward.

Thomas, already the Arizona Fall League’s pitcher of the year, was added to the Cardinals’ 40-man roster so that he could be protected from the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. Thomas, 24, led the elite fall league with 34 strikeouts, and in six starts he had a 1.75 ERA in 25 2/3 innings for Salt River Rafters. That performance elevated him to a spot on the Cardinals’ depth chart as a possible lefty reliever or long reliever, and he’ll come to spring training as part of the major-league roster.

The deadline to protect eligible players from the Rule 5 Draft came Tuesday at 5 p.m. St. Louis time. The Cardinals had only a handful of decisions, mostly surrounding how many spots on the 40-man roster they wanted to keep open or open up for prospects.

Thomas’ addition puts the roster at 39.

The Cardinals continue to plan to add a catcher and their hope is to add an additional bat, suggesting they’ll create room on the roster with another move or series of them. On Friday, the Cardinals must present contracts to arbitration-eligible players who are not yet signed for the 2023 season. The Cardinals can elect to not “tender” them contracts, and those non-tendered players become free agents.

Internally, the Cardinals are making decisions on longtime top prospect Alex Reyes, who is returning from shoulder injury, and reliever Chris Stratton, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Pittsburgh. Both are entering their final offseason of arbitration eligibility.

The Cardinals’ fifth-round pick in 2019, Thomas spent the previous summer at Class AAA Memphis as part of its rotation. The lefty went 6-12 with a 5.47 ERA in 28 games, and he allowed 172 hits against 110 strikeouts in 135 innings. He struggled against right-handed batters, and he told Post-Dispatch and baseball writer Daniel Guerrero to address that he took advice from pitching coach Mike Maddux and Cardinals all-time saves leader Jason Isringhausen.

He developed a cut fastball.

“I really started doing a lot more two-seam, cutter — a lot of two-seam, cutter here at the fall league,” Thomas told Guerrero. “Whereas in Memphis I was still doing two-seam, slider a lot. And I would throw the cutter maybe five or six times a game just to kind of work on it. But here, my main two goals here was to get ahead with strike one, and to work on the cutter and finally finish developing it.”

The pitch gave him something to attack the inner edge of the plate against right-handed batters, make them less comfortable, and play off his other three pitches. Scouting reports from his Arizona Fall League appearances described him as a savvy pitcher with a feel for four pitches, and with them he had the ability to crisscross the plate against hitters.

At the Arizona Fall League, widely considered to be a finishing school and showcase for leading prospects, Thomas struck out a third of the batters he faced and had more strikeouts total (34) than baserunners allowed (28).

“It just came from me getting ahead early,” said Thomas, the National League’s starter in the annual Fall Stars game. “And that’s been my biggest focus here at the fall league is just working on getting ahead of hitters and staying ahead. During my time in Memphis, I wasn’t really doing that. I didn’t really have a lot of confidence in getting ahead early and so a lot of hitters were starting to ambush me early. And that led to my lack of confidence of getting ahead. But that was my main focus coming here was just to get ahead with strike one.”

Some notable Cardinals’ minor-leaguers who were left unprotected for December’s Rule 5 draft were: RHP Kodi Whitley, 1B Luken Baker, CF Scott Hurst, OF Todd Lott, RHP Kyle Leahy, UT Evan Mendoza, C Pedro Pages, RHP Inohan Paniagua, RHP Tommy Parsons, 2B Chandler Redmond, RHP Griffin Roberts, UT Kramer Robertson.

Whitley, Robertson, and Hurst have all appeared in the majors with the Cardinals. Leahy and Pages were members of the group the Cardinals sent to the Arizona Fall League. A right-hander, Leahy struck out 21 batters in 14 1/3 innings at the AFL, but he also had a 10.67 ERA helped along by allowing 27 baserunners. Parsons, 27, has been with Class AAA Memphis since 2019, and the right-hander went 12-4 with a 4.31 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP for the Redbirds this past summer.

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