Red Sox reliever Tyler Thornburg progressing toward return

Mar 1, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Tyler Thornburg (47) throws a pitch during the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 1, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Tyler Thornburg (47) throws a pitch during the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Boston Red Sox right-handed reliever Tyler Thornburg is ready to get back on the mound following an encouraging bullpen session.

A rough spring for new Boston Red Sox setup man Tyler Thornburg is trending in the right direction following an encouraging bullpen session on Tuesday.

The Providence Journal’s Tim Britton reports that Thornburg has been cleared to appear in a minor-league game, which will mark his first appearance on the mound since May 1.

Thornburg was abysmal in his only two appearances this spring. While the right-hander has a history of slow starts during spring training, his performance so far this year represents a disturbing new low. He allowed seven earned runs over 1 1/3 innings for a brutal 47.25 ERA before the Red Sox shut him down.

The team believes that Thornburg’s issues stem from difficulty adjusting to their shoulder strength and conditioning program, rather than an injury. There doesn’t appear to be any long-term concerns with the reliever’s shoulder as he begins to ramp up his activity to prepare for the upcoming season.

That being said, there are still some lingering doubts regarding his availability for Opening Day. Thornburg still needs to get back into pitching shape and rebuild his arm strength following a three week layoff.

"“It’s going to be hard to tell [if I’ll be ready for Opening Day] just because it’s been a lot different type of spring,” Thornburg said Tuesday, per the Providence Journal. “The only thing I want to have happen is — the recovery time for me in spring training is pretty big — just getting that recovery time down to where you don’t have any issues going two in a row or three or four early on in the year. That’s the only thing.”"

Even if Thornburg is ready when the season opens in less than two weeks, Farrell indicated that it would be hard to anoint the 28-year old as their setup man right away. This would be a rather surprising development considering president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski acquired Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers after identifying the 8th inning role as one of the team’s most pressing needs entering the offseason.

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The trade for Thornburg was praised as an ideal solution for filling the 8th inning void. He’s coming off of a season in which he posted a career-best 2.15 ERA and 12.1 K/9, serving as the setup man for the Brewers before eventually moving into the closer seat. The Red Sox would certainly prefer that he be the bridge to Craig Kimbrel, but if he’s not ready to begin the season on time or needs to be eased into the role after seeing limited work this spring then the team will need to turn to other options.

Joe Kelly may get a shot in the setup role if Thornburg isn’t ready. He excelled late last season after a move to the bullpen, posting a stellar 1.02 ERA and recording 21 strikeouts over 17 2/3 innings as a reliever. Kelly is having a solid spring with a 2.57 ERA over 7 innings, while holding opposing hitters to a .182 batting average. There are certainly plenty of reasons to be optimistic that Kelly will thrive in his first full season out of the bullpen, yet he’s still relatively unproven in that role.

Another name Farrell could turn to in the 8th inning is Heath Hembree, who was arguably the team’s most consistent reliever last year. He’s been great this spring, posting a 1.50 ERA and striking out 8 over 6 innings of relief.

Boston has some depth in the bullpen, potentially making it the best core of relievers this team has had in years. That depth could be tested if Thornburg gets off to a rocky start or is forced to start the season on the disabled list, especially since Carson Smith is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery.

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The health of the pitching staff has been a hot topic for discussion this spring. It remains a concern as we approach Opening Day, but at least this latest update on Thornburg is a promising sign that the outlook on Red Sox pitchers is looking up.