Red Sox reliever Tyler Thornburg has much to prove this spring

KANSAS CITY, MO - JULY 6: Tyler Thornburg #47 of the Boston Red Sox throws in the seventh inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on July 6, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - JULY 6: Tyler Thornburg #47 of the Boston Red Sox throws in the seventh inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on July 6, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /
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Boston Red Sox right-handed reliever Tyler Thornburg is attempting to back a comeback after two forgettable seasons with the organization.

There’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding how the Boston Red Sox will fill out their bullpen but one of the biggest question marks heading into next season relates to a pitcher who is already on the roster. Tyler Thornburg has as much to prove as anyone as he works his way back from a pair of lost seasons.

The Red Sox acquired Thornburg in a regrettable deal that cost them emerging infielder Travis Shaw, who has since flourished with the Milwaukee Brewers. Thornburg missed the entire 2017 season while recovering from surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome. He made his way back to the big league roster last July but lasted only 24 innings, posting a brutal 5.63 ERA and a declining strikeout rate of 7.9 K/9.

Boston avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $1.75 million deal with Thornburg, implying they expect him to be a factor in their bullpen. Otherwise, a team facing payroll concerns would be expected to non-tender him and find a cheaper replacement.

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Thornburg will need to pitch much better than what we saw from him last year in order to warrant a roster spot. He’s currently healthy, which would make stashing him on the disabled list while he works out his issues a complicated solution. He’s been out of minor league options since before he arrived in Boston, so they can’t simply send him to Triple-A without his permission.

A strong showing in camp would set a lot of minds at ease regarding his role in the bullpen. Unfortunately, Thornburg has historically been a slow starter. He owns a 6.79 ERA in 54 1/3 career innings during spring training. He’s also posted a much better ERA in the second half of seasons (2.81) compared to the first half (3.64) over the course of his career.

His track record suggests we need to be patient for Thornburg to come around as the season progresses but how long can the Red Sox afford to wait if he gets off to a poor start? Will he improve later in the year or is he no longer the pitcher he once was?

The team’s level of patience may depend on if they make any other moves in free agency. If Craig Kimbrel doesn’t return and a proven closer isn’t signed to replace him, Boston will have an opening in the ninth inning. Thornburg would be a long shot to claim that role but he at least has more experience than the other options on the roster vying for that spot. He saved 13 games in his last season with the Brewers, posting a 2.15 ERA and 12.1 K/9 in his breakout campaign.

If the Red Sox are forced to rely on Matt Barnes or Ryan Brasier as their closer, everyone else gets bumped up in the bullpen hierarchy. That may leave them needing Thornburg to handle key innings in a setup role.

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He’s been a bust during his tenure in Boston but we know a healthy Thornburg is capable of more. Will this be a bounce-back year for the right-hander or will a slow start lead to the Red Sox cutting their losses and moving on? How Thornburg performs this spring may hint at what we can expect from him this year.