Red Sox RHP Tyler Thornburg’s return is equivalent to trade deadline deal

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 31: Tyler Thornburg
MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 31: Tyler Thornburg /

The Boston Red Sox are looking to bolster their bullpen before the MLB trade deadline. The recent activation of Tyler Thornburg may help just as much.

Upgrading the bullpen will be the focus for the Boston Red Sox as we approach the trade deadline this month. While we’re certain to hear plenty of rumors regarding relievers the team pursues, the most impactful addition to the roster this month may come from a pitcher they traded for about 18 months ago.

That would be Tyler Thornburg. The right-hander was activated from the disabled list this week following a lengthy recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome.

Boston acquired Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers prior to last season for a package highlighted by Travis Shaw. The third baseman has blasted 46 home runs and driven in 150 RBI over the last season and a half with the Brew Crew. Thornburg has yet to throw a pitch for the Red Sox at the big league level. To this point, the deal has been about as lopsided as it gets in the Brewers favor.

Now that he’s finally healthy, Thornburg will have the opportunity to prove he was worth the wait and the hefty price the Red Sox paid for him.

Remembering how great Thornburg was

The last time we saw Thornburg pitch in the majors was when he served as Milwaukee’s closer in 2016.  He posted a 2.15 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 12.1 K/9 that season. Thornburg works with a mid-90’s fastball complemented by a curveball.  He has a splitter that he utilized less during his breakout 2016 season but it remains a devastating weapon against left-handed hitters.

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That type of production is about equal to the best options currently available on the trade market. If Thornburg can regain anything close to his previous form, he’ll give the Red Sox bullpen a boost in the late innings.

Boston’s bullpen has been solid overall, ranking third in the league with a collective 3.15 ERA. There’s still a sizable gap between the Red Sox and the elite teams above them. Outside of the brilliance of Craig Kimbrel, Boston’s core of relievers feels mediocre compared to what the Astros and Yankees have in their bullpens. It’s been a struggle to find a trustworthy reliever to lock down the final inning or two leading to Kimbrel in the ninth.

The return of Thornburg would change that. At least it will if he returns as the pitcher the Red Sox thought they traded for.

Rocky rehab

Thornburg made 18 appearances on a rehab assignment split between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket this year. The results were inconsistent. He allowed nine earned runs on 15 hits and eight walks in 16 1/3 innings. That left him with an unappealing 4.96 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and 4.4 BB/9.

It’s no surprise that Thornburg was rusty after missing the entire 2017 season. His control was the main issue, although it always has been for a pitcher who posted a walk rate north of 3.0 BB/9 in his best seasons. It won’t continue to be that bad as he gets more comfortable being back on the mound.

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The Red Sox will undoubtedly continue to eye the trade market for potential upgrades. A barren farm system makes it difficult to compete for the top available options. That makes it imperative that Thornburg comes back strong. Boston only has the chips to make a relatively minor move at the deadline. Thornburg has the potential to be the big swing they need to compete down the stretch and into the postseason.