As we wait for the Red Sox to make one or more big moves to improve the offense, it stands to reason that the pitching staff is more or less set for 2018. There may be a small move or two to add to the depth chart here, but there are no major losses to this group from last year (not including Addison Reed, who was only in town for two months). It goes without saying that the pitching staff was the driving force behind the team all year and the biggest reason they won the American League East.
Looking specifically at the bullpen, this is a high-variance group but one that can steal the Red Sox a handful of extra wins over the course of a season, as we saw in 2017. Earlier in the offseason, I wrote about the group and how it was a high-risk but potentially high-reward group. Carson Smith will get most of the hype and excitement simply because we saw him last year, and it’s well deserved. If he is right he is one of the best relievers in the game. Tyler Thornburg, though, is arguably a more interesting case since we haven’t seen anything from him in a Red Sox uniform. After missing the entirety of 2017, just what the hell should we be expecting from the righty in 2018?
Before we get into all of that, let’s take a minute to look at a little bit of background on Thornburg. You’d be forgiven if you forgot who he even is since it’s been so long since we were considering him as a potential part of the active roster. The righty, now getting set to enter his age-29 season, was a third round pick by the Brewers back in 2010. He originally came up as a starter, but control issues led Milwaukee to shift him to the bullpen on a full-time basis in 2014. Then, a few years later, he experienced a true breakout in 2016 when he was one of the better relievers in the league. He made 67 appearances and tossed 67 innings in that season and pitched to a 2.15 ERA with a 2.86 FIP and a 2.69 DRA with over 12 strikeouts per nine innings. That led to the now-infamous trade to Boston that sent Travis Shaw and Mauricio Dubon (sad face emoji) to the Brewers. Thornburg would then suffer a shoulder injury in the spring — possibly due to not understanding/completing the team’s offseason workout program — and missed the entire 2017 season. He’ll be back in 2018 and on Monday he and the Red Sox avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $2.05 million deal.
So, we’re all caught up. We’re still a few months away from pitchers actually reporting to Fort Myers, but the expectation for now is that Thornburg will be healthy and ready to go for spring training when the time comes. As we try to figure out what to expect, it’s important to look at what injury he actually suffered from. It wasn’t Tommy John as it was with Carson Smith, so it’s not as familiar of a recovery process with so many success cases. Instead, he underwent surgery to alleviate his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. This has become seemingly a bit more common around the league in recent years with some high-profile cases. With that in mind, it makes sense to look at some of those to see how others have recovered from the ailment.
The first case of this injury that I remember occurred (I’m sure it happened before this, but this is when I remember it) was in 2012 with Chris Carpenter. Once one of the more consistent starters in baseball, he suffered the injury in 2012 and was never able to pitch again. Of course, it’s apples and oranges considering he was 37 at the time. A more high-profile and recent case can be found with Matt Harvey, who underwent the procedure in 2016. He ended up coming back to the mound last season, and he wasn’t close to the same. His strikeouts fell way off and he struggled mightily with command. Tyson Ross also came back last year after undergoing the surgery and was a mess, though his surgery was later in the year than Harvey’s. There’s also the case of Phil Hughes, who underwent the surgery in the summer of 2016 then suffered a reoccurrence of the injury last summer.
So, there are plenty of high-profile cases that went awry. That’s really scary! Now, we’ve reached the part where I can offer a glimmer of hope. The first is with The Other Chris Young. The pitcher underwent the surgery in 2013 and came back with the Mariners in 2014. At this point he was 35, so it would have been no surprise if he failed to come back. Instead, he reportedly felt like a new man and certainly looked like it. The righty put together two straight impressive seasons in 2014 and 2015 before his career has taken a step back as he gets closer to 40 years old. There is also the case of Jaime Garcia, who underwent the procedure in the summer of 2014. He’d come back for 2015 and made 20 starts with a sub-3.00 ERA. His numbers haven’t been great the last two seasons, but he largely looks like the pitcher he was before the injury.
At the end of the day, I think it’s hard not to be afraid of how Thornburg is going to come back in 2018. This is a serious injury that has had serious effects on plenty of pitchers, many of whom really struggled in their first year back. Of course, there were success stories as well and every case of any injury is different. Without any medical expertise we can’t say for sure where Thornburg falls on this spectrum. That being said, the Red Sox certainly shouldn’t go in 2018 expecting the former Brewer to look like he did in 2016 and consider anything close to that to be a major bonus to the bullpen. This doesn’t make me believe they need to make a big push for one of the big righties on the market, but it does make me a little more willing to look into the Mike Minor market this winter. (I wrote this about 20 minutes before the Rangers signed Minor and I refuse to delete this last line out of spite.)