The minor-league baseball schedule offered Trayce Thompson a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate his brother Klay’s Fourth NBA title in Boston on Thursday. Five days later, Trayce Thompson is celebrating a signature moment of his own. He’s headed back to the major leagues.
Thompson joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in Cincinnati on Tuesday after the Detroit Tigers traded him Monday for cash considerations. With star outfielder Mookie Betts sidelined for several weeks with an injury, Thompson could platoon in right field along with Eddy Alvarez.
The promotion marks only the third major-league stint for Thompson in four chaotic seasons. Since 2018, Thompson, who previously played for the Dodgers from 2016 to 2017, has been designated for assignment five times, granted free agency three times, claimed off waivers and traded twice and released once.
This season, Thompson, who played six games for the San Diego Padres in April and May, is batting a combined .305/.365/.721 with 17 homers in 170 plate appearances at Triple A.
“I had two years there, and I don’t shy away from this at all … I was the worst player in baseball, in my opinion,” Thompson said. “Sure, I was as talented as everybody. But this game isn’t about talent, it’s about performance at the major-league level.
“But I’m glad it happened because I needed to figure out who I was going to be. Adversity really kind of defines you. It makes you crumble or it defines you.”
Thompson, 31, has faced plenty of challenges in his 13-year career. The youngest son of Los Angeles Lakers great Mychal Thompson, Trayce Thompson’s early minor-league performance never quite matched the hype of his second-round pick (2009) status. He spent six-plus seasons in the minors before reaching the majors.
But once he arrived, Thompson thrived. He hit for power and played strong defense at all three outfield spots for the White Sox in a good 2015 debut season. The Dodgers liked Thompson, who grew up in Orange County, enough to ask for his inclusion in a three-team trade that offseason that brought Todd Frazier to the White Sox from the Cincinnati Reds. Thompson continued to play well for the Dodgers, belting 13 homers and playing good defense for a team with World Series aspirations, until he fractured two vertebrae in his lower back in July 2016 and missed the rest of the season.
Though Thompson’s back was healthy by the 2017 season, he struggled to hit. Bad habits formed by initially playing through the injury led to a big drop in offensive performance. He appeared in 27 games with the Dodgers but spent most of the season at Triple A. The next year, Thompson was assigned for assignment at the end of spring training, which led to a chaotic period in his career.
The Yankees claimed him April 3 and almost immediately waived him. Oakland then claimed him and he played three games for the A’s before he was DFA’d and traded to the White Sox. He played in 48 games for the White Sox, was DFA’d in late June and spent the rest of the season at Triple A.
“When you play for a team like the Dodgers, it’s time to produce,” Thompson said. “They need guys to play well.
“It would be different if I was limited or really not the same type of athlete. But physically I felt fantastic. It was really frustrating, especially in the middle of the season to not know what was going on and being thrown out in the fire of the major leagues. … It was a lot to deal with. It was a pretty low year for me personally.”
Motivated to prove he still was a viable player, Thompson said he focused more than ever headed into 2019. He produced a solid season at Triple-A Columbus, hitting 24 homers, but never had an opportunity with Cleveland and was released Aug. 1.
Thompson signed with the Diamondbacks in 2020 and was in the middle of his best spring training ever when the pandemic struck. He spent the entire season at the alternate site.
The Cubs acquired him from Arizona in May 2021 and he had a fantastic season at Triple-A Iowa. After two outfielders suffered injuries, Thompson was promoted in September. He hit four homers with a 1.114 OPS in 35 plate appearances. The performance only strengthened Thompson’s resolve.
“It was a good year for me and kind of showed me I could still do this,” Thompson said. “I’m glad I’m in the spot I am now. I don’t think I’d be in that spot now if I didn’t go through those few years.”
Still, there were more challenges ahead.
He signed with San Diego after the lockout ended and immediately produced at Triple-A El Paso, which earned him a promotion in late April when Wil Myers was injured. But his tryout lasted six games and he was DFA’d again.
“I had too much sense of urgency, probably tried to do too much,” Thompson said. “But that’s on me. … I feel like I eventually would have gotten in a groove there, but it is what it is.”
If only he’d known what it would lead to.
Thompson signed a minor-league deal with Detroit on May 19, the day after his brother scored 15 points and was plus-20 in 34 minutes against the Dallas Mavericks in a Game 1 win of the NBA‘s Western Conference Finals.
One of the quirks of the post-pandemic minor-league schedule is teams play six-game series each week from Tuesday to Sunday. As a result, Thompson rarely checks the schedule more than a few days ahead of time.
When he received the itinerary for the upcoming road trip on June 9, Thompson noticed Toledo played its next series at Triple-A Worcester, just up the road from Boston. He quickly realized if the NBA Finals went that long — the Boston Celtics had a 2-1 series lead — Game 6 would be played in Boston.
After Golden State‘s Game 4 win at TD Garden on June 10, Trayce had a gut feeling he would be celebrating with his family the following Thursday. Not only is Klay part of the organization, their oldest brother, Mychel, became a coach earlier in the year.
A week later, Trayce homered in Toledo’s quick 10-4 win at Worcester. After the game, he raced to his hotel to gather his belongings before taking a 45-minute Uber ride to Boston for a night of celebrating.
“Everybody wants to be there in person as opposed to over the phone or FaceTime or Skype,” Mychal Thompson said. “Any time you can find a way to get there physically… that made it extra special.
“It was perfect timing.”
The Thompsons are a close-knit family that has celebrated each other’s success through the years.
Trayce had been fortunate enough to attend Klay’s return to the NBA on Jan. 9 after 941 days between games, “a super emotional night” he found fulfilling. But last week was the first time Trayce had the opportunity to attend one of his brother’s championship celebrations. He’d always been doing his own thing and baseball’s nonstop calendar never afforded him a chance to be there.
“I was talking with my uncle about it. I knew they were going to win Game 6,” Trayce Thompson said. “For me personally and selfishly, I haven’t experienced any of these NBA moments. For all this stuff to line up, it just felt so meant to be.
“It was a long night, but it was one of the best nights of my life.”
Perhaps it meant more because Trayce was celebrating his big brother’s first title after the long mental and physical grind that sidelined Klay for nearly three years. As he worked his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury that ended his 2019 Finals run, Clay Thompson tore his Achilles tendon in November 2020. Trayce remembers driving from Irvine, Calif., to the Bay Area that night to support the brother he’d always thought of as Iron Man, unsure of what to say.
Nobody knew what to expect when he returned. Klay, of course, was second on Golden State with 230 minutes played in the NBA Finals and averaged 19 points per game in the postseason.
“I learned so much just watching him,” Trayce Thompson said. “Seeing him go after it day by day … I was so proud and happy for him.”
Now, it’s Trayce’s turn.
On Monday, the Dodgers traded for Thompson, who had an upcoming opt-out clause in his minor-league deal with Detroit.
He’s not sure how long he’ll be there, but Thompson is confident he belongs in the majors. He likes his newfound perspective on the game and understands why the cliché — control what you can control — is important. His mental approach is different and several swing adjustments over the years have him better prepared to do damage on high fastballs.
But he’s unsure how much longer he’s willing to continue chasing the dream and understands the realities of being a 31-year-old at Triple A. For now, he believes he’s capable of producing for a winner and that’s enough to sustain him.
“The battery is very much charged,” Thompson said. “I’m very motivated to prove myself at the major leagues. I feel like I’m in a good spot physically and mentally to do that. But at the same time, I don’t play this game to play Triple-A baseball. I love the game, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes the game doesn’t love you back. When you’re 31 at Triple A, you can see that sometimes. As long as that opportunity is within my grasp and I can knock the door down and control my own destiny, kind of like I did earlier this season with San Diego, I’m going to bet on myself.
“It all comes to an end at some point, but I want to make sure I can look myself in the mirror and say I did everything I could,” Thompson said.
After the Warriors championship parade concluded Monday, Mychal Thompson flipped on Toledo’s game to watch Trayce play. He was stunned to see his son wasn’t in the lineup and texted to find out why only to discover Trayce had been packing his apartment following the trade.
Mychal Thompson is confident Trayce will exhaust every ounce of energy to achieve his dream. He appreciates the determination Trayce has shown in good times and bad.
A big Dodgers fan, Mychal Thompson said his son’s return is a “dream come true.” He also pointed out it could lead to another family celebration come November.
“(His) perseverance, mental toughness and belief — continuing to believe in himself and setting the goals to get to the majors and stay,” Mychal Thompson said. “He’s got a great work ethic and belief in himself and he’s not going to give up.
“You can’t ask for anything better than this, to play here in LA for a great team like the Dodgers, who have a chance to get to the Series. Who knows? If Trayce can stick around we might be going to another parade.”
(Photo: Matt York / Associated Press)