Red Sox manager Alex Cora made an unsurprising announcement earlier this week when he revealed that reliever Tyler Thornburg would be shut down for the remainder of 2018.
There were two glaring reasons for this call by Cora. First, Thornburg’s recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome is ongoing. That injury caused him to miss all of 2017 and much of 2018. While the 29 year-old righty made progress this season, his manager noted he was beginning to fatigue down the stretch.
“There’s no need to push him hard,” Cora told reporters prior to Wednesday’s doubleheader vs. Baltimore. Which, of course, makes perfect sense given the severity of TOS.
However, if Thornburg had performed at a high level in his return to the Boston bullpen mix, would Cora be singing the same tune?
The second obvious reason for giving Thornburg the rest of the autumn off renders that question moot. Thornburg simply hasn’t been effective this season. He posted a 5.63 ERA over 24 innings in 25 appearances, with unflattering peripherals. His last outing was on Sept. 14th, in which he allowed three runs in 2/3rds of an inning (and two HR).
Thornburg’s velocity never really bounced back to 2016 levels, either. Per Brooks Baseball, Thornburg’s average fastball velocity was two mph slower than his last year in Milwaukee.
Mix all of that together, and the smart move was clearly to shut down Thornburg for the year. You won’t get any qualms from me there. However, it does sting to have to mark up yet another effectively lost season for one of Dave Dombrowski’s premier bullpen acquisitions, especially with so many questions swirling about this group of relievers.
The Red Sox acquired Thornburg via trade from the Brewers in December 2016. At the time, the move made total sense. Outgoing Travis Shaw had proven to be a solid, yet unspectacular corner infield option. And, after striking out on Carson Smith Boston felt that another quality reliever was the missing piece to October success.
To his credit, Thornburg was coming off of an excellent 2016. He posted a 2.67 ERA with 12.1 K/9 and 13 saves as the Brewers set-up man in front of closer Jeremy Jeffress. The hope was to combine Thornburg with Smith, to provide a formidable 7th-8th inning duo come playoff time.
Unfortunately for the Sox, things went off of the rails almost immediately. Thornburg injured his shoulder that spring, which led to a war of words between him and the front office. Thornburg claimed that a new fitness program implemented by the Red Sox training staff caused the injury, which ruffled more than a few feathers around the organization. That shoulder fatigue/soreness only worsened as the year went along. The right-hander did not throw a pitch for the Sox in 2017.
Not helping matters in all of this: Shaw has turned into a strong infield power bat for the Brew Crew. In 293 games across two seasons, Shaw has slashed .258/.348/.497 with 62 HR and a 120 OPS+. He’s amassed 8.1 bWAR over that span, compared to Thornburg’s -0.1 bWAR. Any way you slice it, the trade has been a huge win for Milwaukee, and a difficult pill to swallow for the Red Sox.
Thornburg underwent surgery in June, after his shoulder pain continued into 2018. He was finally able to make his Red Sox debut on July 6th. While this season has been a step in the right direction, it hasn’t been enough to earn him a spot on the playoff roster.
The plan is that a full, proper offseason will go a long way toward’s Thornburg’s continued recovery, and ensure he’ll be a contributing member of next season’s roster. Although, as the Red Sox have learned: people plan, and the Baseball Gods laugh.