Before right-hander Tyler Thornburg was shut down for the season last September, complications from thoracic outlet syndrome were so intrusive that he needed a full week to recover from each outing.
His range of motion was so limited that he couldn’t get on top of his curveball and was forced to throw from a different angle, resulting in some ugly results (15 earned runs in 24 innings on the year).
Just four months later, the World Series champion Red Sox are now looking at Thornburg, who hasn’t been healthy since 2016, and talking about him as a potential solution in the ninth inning.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski mentioned it last week at the Boston Baseball Writers Dinner. After announcing that the Sox still don’t expect to endure a “large expenditure” for a closer — so long, Craig Kimbrel? — Dombrowski presented another idea.
“The one name I will say I forgot is Tyler Thornburg coming into camp,” he said. “We’re interested to see how he does. He has been a closer and he has been a very good closer in the past. He is healthy. ... If he would come back and be the pitcher he was in the past, he is a guy who’s done that before.”
For a rebuilding team to bet on a 30-year-old coming off the low-percentage thoracic outlet syndrome surgery as an option in the ninth inning would be somewhat risky. For a team that wants to defend its World Series title, it seems borderline irrational.
But that’s what it’s come to for a Red Sox team that’s already up to its nose in big contracts and will again push for the highest payroll in MLB.
As principal owner John Henry mentioned last week, even big market teams have spending limits.
The Sox bullpen allowed 3.99 runs per game last year, sixth-best in the majors, but will likely lose Kimbrel and already lost Joe Kelly to the Dodgers.
Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes look like solid options in the late innings, but the Red Sox know their low-budget bullpen will need to take some giant steps forward to fill in the gaps and provide Alex Cora with options if Brasier or Barnes can’t get it done.
Pitching coach Dana LeVangie said last week he thinks Heath Hembree is one of those relievers with still untapped potential.
“We trust Heath,” LeVangie said. “I think he continues to get better each year.
“Guys are going to have to step up. We’re not asking them to become Craig Kimbrel or anybody else, but just do your job and I think we’ll be fine.”
Hembree is an interesting candidate for the late innings. The 30-year-old right-hander has a steady 3.46 ERA over parts of six big league seasons, but was left off the postseason roster in 2017 and originally left off again last year until Steven Wright’s injury opened the door for Hembree to make the roster. He was hardly used at all, making just four appearances in the 14 playoff games.
From a talent perspective, he has enough to be effective. His fastball averages 95-mph and is paired with a solid slider and curveball that had been historically bad but took a big step forward last year, holding opponents to a .161 average, per Brooks Baseball. With a better three-pitch mix, Hembree had his best career WHIP last year, 1.33, though his highest career ERA, 4.20.
“Well, you want to go back and look at Heath Hembree’s career track record, the first half of the year he was a really good pitcher for us,” LeVangie said. “Whether it’s us over-using him because he’s a good pitcher, all the things above, I don’t know. He got big outs early and I think he’s an option, we just have to clean him up for the length of the year and keep him more consistent.”
Brasier, 31, had a 1.60 ERA last year but will have to contend with the rest of the league adjusting to him after a strong rookie season.
Barnes, 28, took a monstrous step forward with a career year last year and looks most poised for further improvement. He struck out 14 per nine while posting a career-best walk rate of 6.9 per nine.
Thornburg is the wild card. And while it seems risky to expect production out of him, Thornburg said he’s far ahead of where he was a year ago, already throwing 5-6 times per week in anticipation of earning his roster spot in spring training. He agreed to a $1.75 million contract to avoid arbitration, but the deal can be voided if Thornburg doesn’t prove himself healthy enough to be on the Opening Day roster.
“I feel comfortable with the idea because I know how I’m feeling right now,” he said. “That should say something where I feel like I’m at right now.”
Henry warned that “Trader Dave” Dombrowski could still strike a deal to acquire a reliever before the season. But with all of the relief options to upgrade in free agency now off the board (except for Kimbrel), it looks like the Sox could enter the year relying on the group they have.
“There’s always someone who comes out the woods basically that saves the season,” Thornburg said. “Brasier last year. It always tends to happen. I feel with where I’m at right now, I should be one of those guys who should be relied on pretty heavily.”