PHILADELPHIA — It would be dumb of us to say that the Tyler Thornburg-for-Travis Shaw-plus-prospects deal with Milwaukee isn’t a bust. All I can say in his defense is that when Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski made the deal there was a lot of enthusiasm for Thornburg, who had shown to be a nasty pitcher in both setup and closer roles for the Brewers in 2016.
Nobody seemed too concerned about giving up Shaw, an average third baseman whose offense had fallen off the cliff in the second half of last season (.194, .619 OPS). The Red Sox had Pablo Sandoval returning to the lineup to play third, so giving up Shaw was no biggie.
The bigger concern was giving up shortstop Mauricio Dubon, who is now hitting .289 with 29 steals at Double A Biloxi, and hard-throwing righthander Josh Pennington. The Red Sox also gave up a player to be named later, who turned out to be 18-year-old shortstop Yeison Coca.
So yes, the deal looks bad especially when you consider Shaw is likely going to make the National League All-Star team.
Thornburg, who has not yet pitched for the Red Sox, has thoracic outlet syndrome and it was announced Thursday that he will need surgery. It’s a tricky surgery and not all pitchers have made smooth comebacks. Dombrowski said that doctors have told him it will be nine months before Thornburg can pitch again.
The Red Sox’ recent bad luck with relievers is staggering. Before Thornburg there was Carson Smith, who missed most of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Smith was traded for Wade Miley, so the player loss wasn’t as significant. The Red Sox didn’t have much use for Miley, who was then flipped to Baltimore, where he’s pitched very well.
Smith had a strong season with Seattle in 2015, though a Mariners official told me right after the deal was consummated that in his opinion Smith had a high potential for injury because of his funky delivery. Three games into his Red Sox career Smith was shut down, leading to the surgery.
In fairness, there are a lot of pitchers who have deliveries that concern baseball people. Max Scherzer’s delivery — because he throws across his body — has always been a concern. Dombrowski, while with the Tigers, traded for Scherzer. Scherzer has since moved on to Washington, and not only has he not broken down, he is a workhorse.
Chris Sale’s delivery always came under scrutiny as one that could cause a breakdown. That hasn’t happened, either. Dombrowski traded for him, as well.
The Red Sox have had a litany of relievers who have broken down. Dombrowski’s predecessors all had them. In one of his first trades as Red Sox general manager, Ben Cherington acquired up-and-coming closer Andrew Bailey, giving up Josh Reddick as the featured piece in a multi-player deal with Oakland. Bailey pitched parts of two years in Boston, but he broke down and needed Tommy John surgery. With Bailey gone, Cherington traded for Pittsburgh’s Joel Hanrahan, sending Mark Melancon in a six-player deal. But Hanrahan got to Boston and broke down after nine appearances in the 2013 season.
Cherington hit on Koji Uehara in 2013, though his original role was to be a seventh-inning reliever. And Dombrowski has certainly hit on Craig Kimbrel.
But the reality is relievers are tough to deal for, and it’s even tougher to give up talent for them. With the Bailey, Hanrahan, Smith, and Thornburg acquisitions, you felt you were getting late-inning specialists on the upside. But then they got hurt.
Dombrowski couldn’t have seen the future. Maybe his scouts and his own observations were that Scherzer, Smith, and Sale had bad deliveries. But Scherzer hasn’t broken down as a Tiger or National, and Sale never broke down with the White Sox.
As Dombrowski pointed out while addressing the media Thursday at Citizens Bank Park, there were really no major signs that this would happen to Thornburg, nor were there whispers that he was prone to breaking down.
Dombrowski said there were some chiropractic visits made by Thornburg in 2016, but they were minor in nature. There was nothing to nix a deal.
Dombrowski said that the Brewers were forthcoming in their release of medical information. This was not like the San Diego situation with Drew Pomeranz, where the Padres hid medical news on Pomeranz’s elbow and forearm.
“It’s been a long process for Tyler from spring training when he got shut down,” Dombrowski said. “It’s been a frustrating situation for him where he felt good and then he wouldn’t feel good for a long period of time. It was about three weeks ago we brought him to a specialist in Boston and he thought he had thoracic outlet syndrome.”
Dombrowski said Thornburg was treated with Botox shots but they didn’t work, so a second specialist felt he needed the surgery.
Asked if he regretted making the deal, Dombrowski said, “It’s one of those things that happens. It’s buyer beware when you make any deal. There’s no way you would know this. Milwaukee gave us all the information and they were very upfront. So now we just need to get the player healthy and move on from there.”
Dombrowski probably didn’t make a Jeff Bagwell-for-Larry Andersen deal. Lou Gorman surely didn’t know Bagwell would make it to the Hall of Fame and Andersen would wind up in the Phillies’ broadcast booth. General managers leave themselves susceptible to criticism all the time with deals, especially when they give up good prospects for veterans.
Was this a good deal? Absolutely not. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good deal when it was made. It just turned out lousy.