Red Sox-Brewers: Three year anniversary of the Tyler Thornburg trade
By Tim Starr
On this day three years ago in 2016, the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers made a trade. Let’s analyze the aftermath of the Tyler Thornburg trade.
Entering the 2016-2017 offseason, the Boston Red Sox lost Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, both important parts of the bullpen since the 2013 World Series. With Craig Kimbrel having the worst season of his career up to that point (get ready for 2019 though) and the newly acquired Carson Smith not pitching in his first season, there were lots of question marks headed into 2017.
In order to stabilize the back-end of the bullpen, former Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski executed a trade with the Brewers to acquire right-handed reliever Tyler Thornburg on December 6, 2016.
Thornburg was coming off of a fine season – 2.15 ERA, 12.1 SO/9, 199 ERA+. He was absolutely dominant during the 2016 season.
Expecting the 2016 form of Thornburg, Dombrowski gave up a lot in order to acquire him. The Red Sox sent three players in the package to Milwaukee; most notably Travis Shaw, to go along with Mauricio Dubon and Josh Pennington. To say the least, this trade shot the Red Sox in the foot for the next few years. Let’s review what has transpired with all of these players since the 2016 trade.
Thornburg had a series of health-related problems to begin the 2017 season. By the middle of June, it was announced that he would undergo season-ending surgery to fix his thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder.
After getting a rib removed in the process, he returned for the 2018 season. Nearly a year and a half between appearances, he had dampened expectations entering the year, but knowing how he pitched in 2016, there was definitely still hope he could perform. By the season’s conclusion, not even the lowest expectations were met.
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In 2018, he only pitched 24 innings and was not effective in those innings. Thornburg posted a 5.63 ERA and 79 ERA+. He made his 2018 major league debut in July and made his last appearance in mid-September. Overall, he only pitched for half of the season.
Headed into 2019, he was a strong candidate to be released and left off the Red Sox roster. To make matters worse, Shaw was absolutely mashing for the Brewers as he hit 63 homers in his first two seasons. However, Dombrowski stuck with his prized 2016 acquisition to begin the 2019 season.
The Red Sox already had a shaky bullpen and Thornburg definitely moved the needle. Backward. He one-upped his 2018 season and not in a good way. If you thought he couldn’t get worse, he did, as he pitched to a 7.71 ERA good for a 63 OPS+. Finally coming to his senses, Dombrowski made sure his May 21 appearance was his last. By the end of May, the Thornburg saga was over.
Overall, Thornburg’s stint in Boston was absolutely awful. To be fair, his disappointment can be traced to the 2017 surgery that may prove to derail his entire major league career.
In Boston, the young third baseman had a reputation as a good hitter against righties, but weak to left-handed pitching. Shaw definitely turned that perception on its head in his first two seasons in Milwaukee.
In 2017, he hit .273 with 31 home runs and 101 RBI. Shaw followed up with .241/32/86 in 2018. He was a monster in his first two seasons with the Brewers. To go along with his offensive numbers, Shaw was an above-average defender at third base with 3 and 9 Defensive Runs Saved in his first two seasons in Milwaukee. The trade made it seem as if David Stearns robbed the Red Sox as he cut a disaster in Thornburg and acquired a haul of players.
In 2019 though, Shaw was a completely different story. After putting up two All-Star worthy years, he posted a 45 OPS+. Basically, he hit 55, yes 55, percent worse than league average. One of the Brewers starting pitchers, Brandon Woodruff hit better than him.
This past 2019 season doesn’t make the Thornburg deal look as bad, but Shaw still provided tons of production from 2017-2018. Still, he is definitely a bounce-back candidate for 2020. Either way, Shaw has embarrassed Dombrowski for trading him to the Brewers as he was an absolute beast in his first two seasons.
Mauricio Dubon and Josh Pennington
The other two players included in the package to the Brewers have not had much of an impact with the Brewers. For that, they will share the paragraph. Simply put, Pennington has not pitched since 2018 and will never make an impact with the Brewers.
Dubon was a highly ranked prospect for Milwaukee and played two games before being traded. He ended up playing 28 games with his new team, the Giants and hit for league average, a 99 OPS+. He brought in former Red Sox pitcher Drew Pomeranz to the Brew Crew.
Pomeranz acclimated well with his new ball-club as he was dominant out of the bullpen with the Brewers. He pitched to a 188 ERA+ which eventually (and recently) landed him a 4-year deal with the San Diego Padres.
The Thornburg trade will go down as one of the worst trades in recent Red Sox memory. Dombrowski gave away an All-Star caliber player in Shaw and a top prospect in Dubon for a relief pitcher that did nothing.
The trade wouldn’t have been awful if either Thornburg pitched better or Shaw played worse, but ultimately everything fell the Brewers way. I would not be surprised if Dave Dombrowski still turns in bed and gets nightmares over this trade.