Players succeed and fail and the Boston Red Sox have one that is failing in Tyler Thornburg. How far do you go before moving on?
The Red Sox either took a chance, displayed stupidity, or had the utmost confidence when they signed right-hander Tyler Thornburg to a $1.75M contract with another $400,000 potentially on the table with performance bonus money – an amount that is fast becoming unreachable for Thornburg this season.
The Red Sox made a baseball trade that is the best kind – a wooden bat for a rubber arm when they shipped Travis Shaw to the Brewers for Thornburg. The deal made a world of sense as the Red Sox had other options besides Shaw and Thornburg was coming off a career year with 13 saves, 2.83 FIP, 12.1 K/9, and 67 games. A solid and versatile addition to the Red Sox bullpen. Then Thornburg crashed.
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Injuries can be predictable and unpredictable and Thornburg’s was a nightmare for any person and especially for an MLB pitcher – Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The result was Thornburg’s inaugural 2017 season in Boston was spent on the sidelines followed by just 24 rather disappointing innings last season. This season Thornburg made the roster and has muddled along and can now be classified as reliable for only mop-up duty – either hopelessly behind or comfortably ahead.
Thornburg is not unique among pitchers in that he has previously been down the injury path while with the Brewers. In 2014 Thornburg’s elbow became an issue and in June he was shut down. In 2015 Thornburg spent considerable time in the minors to build up arm strength. The results showed with his excellent 2016.
The dilemma that Boston faces is just how far do you go? When is enough simply enough and you walk away? That may be fast approaching, but Thornburg does have some chips in play that may be a roster lifeline at least in the short-term. The before mentioned elbow took well over a year and recovery from TOS is considered longer and more difficult. Injury patience may be necessary.
In 2016 Thornburg relied heavily upon a fastball (66.3%) with some nice velocity at 94.1. This season with the very small sample the speed is 93.8 with fastball usage down to 54.2%. What is also noticeable is in 2016 Thornburg didn’t get burned with the long ball with a 0.8 HR/9. In his Red Sox career of 36.2 innings, it sits at 2.2 HR/9 despite a fly ball rate that has not measurably increased in his two Boston seasons.
This is back to the patience issue and that is the fine line that is being traversed surely within the Red Sox War Room as it is within the social media onslaught within Red Sox Nation. I would give it time since the opportunity is there to minimize damage such as the game against the A’s when Thornburg gave up three runs in the ninth. Just maybe a month of low leverage can produce the ability to go high leverage?
The Red Sox and Thornburg have replacement value issues. Heath Hembree and Colten Brewer are not exactly lighting up the pitching world with outstanding performances. The minors have a cast with potential, but the potential appears a year or two away. The waiver wire offers up just an incremental improvement or no improvement at all. Thornburg may just stay put unless a roster spot is desperately needed.
Thornburg will drift along and be given opportunities, but if the bulk of his work resembles the all too familiar meltdowns the die will be cast for a Thornburg exit. I still see the Thornburg of 2016 and if somehow fate is favorable to the Red Sox and Thornburg that pitcher would be the quality depth that is much-needed.