Can Tyler Thornburg Be Late-Inning Arm Red Sox Bullpen Needs In 2019?

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When the Boston Red Sox acquired Tyler Thornburg prior to the 2017 season, the hope was he’d be a reliable late-inning arm for the next three-plus seasons.

Through two campaigns, by no fault of Thornburg’s, that hasn’t been the case. But with a lot to prove in Year 3, there’s plenty of reason to have some optimism and think he can be a key contributor in relief.

Let’s revisit how we got to this point.

The Red Sox possessed a quality trade piece in Travis Shaw with Rafael Devers knocking on the door to the big leagues, and they were in need of some bullpen help. As a result, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski sent Shaw and a package of prospects to the Milwaukee Brewers, and in return received Thornburg.

But Thornburg began the 2017 season on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, and in June he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, the same ailment suffered by Matt Harvey. By the time Thornburg finished rehabbing from surgery and was able to get back into games, it was May 2018. He made 18 rehab appearances between Triple-A Pawtucket and Double-A Portland before getting summoned to the big leagues on the Fourth of July.

In 25 games with the Red Sox, he posted a 2-0 record with a 5.63 ERA, 21 strikeouts and a 1.583 WHIP. Not exactly a stunning stat line, but beyond the box score, he occasionally showed flashes of his old self.

At the time of his trade to Boston, the righty was coming off a season where he was one of the best eighth-inning arms in the game — similar to what Josh Hader became this past season for Milwaukee. And it’s for that reason the Red Sox should have some faith in Thornburg, albeit with reasonable skepticism.

Joe Kelly now is with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Drew Pomeranz with the San Francisco Giants and it seems Craig Kimbrel will sign elsewhere unless his asking price comes down substantially. And while Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier will enter spring training as the frontrunners to be next season’s closer, Thornburg very much is in that mix.

In 2016 with the Brewers, Thornburg’s fastball averaged 94.1 mph, per FanGraphs. His putaway breaking ball, which is devastating when it’s on, sat at 78.9 mph. While the curveball velocity was similar in 2018, his fastball dipped down to 92.9.

It’s important to keep in mind this will be the first time Thornburg has entered spring training at full health in a few years. And given he was shut down in September, he got a head start on his offseason. If that extra time results in him finding his old self more and more and his stuff starts getting back to where it can be, the Red Sox could have a real gem at their disposal.

Entering the spring, Thornburg has the right mindset.

“Normally spring training is to get ready for the season,” the pitcher said in an interview with MassLive. “I just have to come in with a little bit different mindset of just trying to be a little bit more competitive during spring training. A little bit more fully ready. Maybe throw two, three, four more bullpens by the time I get down there. Just so everything’s a little bit more sharp. That way I can show ’em that I’m where I need to be at the beginning of spring training and not have them have to worry about, ‘Is he going to be there taking the whole spring training to kind of figure that out?’”

That said, his intent is to be a stable arm for the Red Sox deep into the season.

“In the situation I’m in right now, I technically have to be ready pretty early to show ’em, ‘Hey, I’m back basically.’ But then I have to be ready to pitch until November,” Thornburg said.

At this point, there’s next to no risk in Thornburg for the Red Sox. He’s on a one-year, $1.75 million non-guaranteed deal, so if he doesn’t earn a spot in the bullpen out of spring training, the Red Sox can cut him before Opening Day without significant financial implications.

Thornburg’s upside, though, is through the roof. The 30-year-old has experience in high-leverage situations, his stuff is remarkable when it’s working and he’s had all offseason to work on hashing things out. Given the wide-open nature of the Red Sox bullpen as it currently stands, prepare for Thornburg to not only make a compelling case to not crack the Opening Day roster but also be a pivotal part of Boston’s success in the late innings all season.

Thumbnail photo via Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports Images

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