OXON HILL, Md. — Tyler Thornburg was one of the best relief pitchers in baseball last season, not that it made much of a difference.
The righthander worked as a set-up man and closer for the Milwaukee Brewers, piling up strikeouts with an effective mix of three pitches for a team that finished 30½ games out of first place.
For the Brewers, Thornburg was shiny hood ornament on a broken-down car and his greatest value was on the trade market. On Tuesday, the Red Sox met their price.
The Sox sent infielder Travis Shaw, Double A shortstop Mauricio Dubon, Single A righthander Josh Pennington, and future considerations to the Brewers to get Thornburg as their eighth-inning man.
“We think he will be one of the better set-up guys in baseball,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said.
The Sox added another complementary player later in the day when they signed first baseman Mitch Moreland for one year and $5.5 million.
Moreland, 31, fills a very specific need for the Sox in that he is a first baseman and a lefthanded hitter with power. The Sox were seeking a low-cost option to plug into their lineup.
Moreland’s addition will allow Hanley Ramirez to be used as the designated hitter more often, particularly against righthanded pitchers.
Moreland, who won a Gold Glove last season, is a career .254 hitter with 110 home runs over parts of seven seasons with the Texas Rangers. He has a career .778 OPS against righthanded pitching.
Thornburg was sleeping when the trade was made and woke up to a flurry of voicemails and text messages.
“Definitely excited about the opportunity,” he said. “We have a legitimate shot at winning the World Series.”
Thornburg, 28, appeared in 67 games last season, going 8-5 with 13 saves and 2.15 earned run average. He allowed 38 hits and struck out 90 over 67 innings.
“We scouted him very thoroughly last year. He has nasty stuff,” Dombrowski said. “He did a good job for Milwaukee in closing games at the end of the year. We feel he’s a guy who projects to be a quality eighth-inning individual for us that can also close a game if needed. He gets lefties out as well as righties, which is what we were looking to try and find.”
Opponents hit .162 against Thornburg. Lefthanders had a weak .130 average against him with a microscopic .413 OPS.
Red Sox manager John Farrell said the Sox wanted the ability to give the eighth inning to a pitcher regardless of who was coming up.
“That was major factor in this,” Farrell said. “His age, kind of a breakout year for him last year with some subtle adjustments he’s made with his delivery and arm slot have led to that strikeout rate to climb. We feel like we’re getting a guy at the absolute right time.”
Thornburg’s fastball averaged 94 miles per hour last season and hit 97. He also used a curveball effectively, along with a splitter against lefthanders. He struck out 34 percent of the batters he faced.
Thornburg is in his first year of arbitration eligibility and will be under control for at least three years. Based on projections, he will receive approximately $2.2 million for 2017.
The Red Sox made a similar trade last offseason, acquiring set-up man Carson Smith from Seattle, the righthander injured his elbow in spring training and appeared in only three games before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Thornburg arrives with comparable risk. He was on the disabled list for the final four months of the 2014 season with what proved to a strain of his ulnar collateral ligament. He was given an injection of platelet-rich plasma, avoided Tommy John surgery and has pitched well since.
“We feel good about it,” Dombrowski said. “We looked at the medicals, reviewed them very thoroughly.”
Thornburg said he was concerned about his elbow at the time and thought he would need surgery, even after the injection. But he pitched without any pain last season. Thornburg felt staying in one role contributed to that.
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“No flare-ups whatsoever,” he said. “The elbow didn’t bother me a single time.”
Dombrowski said an offer was made to free agent Koji Uehara, but he asked for more time knowing the Sox could move on to another player. Now Uehara will look elsewhere after four strong years in Boston.
Shaw, 26, hit 29 homers for the Sox over the last two seasons but hit only .242 with a .306 on-base percentage last season after a protracted slump.
Dubon is one of the organization’s top 10 prospects but profiled as a utility player for the Sox. Milwaukee also will receive a player to be named or cash.
“You can see what clubs have been getting for closers [and] set-up guys. Really [Thornburg] could be a closer in many situations. He was their closer,” Dombrowski said. “It’s either an expensive dollar market or an expensive acquisition market.”
The Sox will have Thornburg setting up Craig Kimbrel with Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Robbie Ross Jr., Heath Hembree, and Fernando Abad available. Smith should return in May or June and add to what is a formidable group.
The trade of Shaw also signifies the Sox have confidence that Pablo Sandoval can handle third base after missing essentially all of last season because of a shoulder injury that required surgery.
“We know he’s a solid player at the major league level when healthy and ready to go and he continues to show the great attitude he needs to show. Now he still has to earn the job,” Dombrowski said.