The Red Sox have acquired Brewers closer Taylor Thornburg for infielder Travis Shaw and minor league prospects Mauricio Dubon and Josh Pennington, as first reported by Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald.
The losses of Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Brad Ziegler to free agency left the Red Sox with a depleted bullpen, but they’ve taken a major step to solving that problem. For the Brewers, it’s the third reliever so far that they’ve traded away in their two-year rebuilding effort.
Thornburg was drafted as a starter in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft, and was considered a borderline top 100 prospect as recently as 2013. He moved to the bullpen at the start of 2014, but an elbow injury in early June kept him on the sidelines for the rest of the year. He managed to avoid Tommy John Surgery, but struggled at the start of 2015, allowing 13 runs in his first six appearances, and as a starter in the minors. He returned after the trade deadline, however, a changed man. He posted a 2.92 ERA, with 26 striketouts in 24.2 innings the rest of the way, and opponents hit .169/.260/.315 off of him.
With Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith, he formed an effective threesome at the back of the Milwaukee pen for much of 2016. Indeed, it was Thornburg who emerged as the elite shutdown arm in that group. In 67 innings, he had a 2.15 ERA and struck out 90 batters in 67 innings. Once Smith and Jeffress were dealt, Thornburg took over as closer, saving 11 of 15 chances after the deadline. Unfortunately, he blew his last three opportunities, and allowed runs in his last four appearances. It may have been a blip or a sign that Thornburg was struggling with a physical issue.
For Boston, Thornburg will likely serve as the setup man for Craig Kimbrel, allowing him to be used more creatively in higher leverage situations. And for him, the Sox didn’t have to give up much.
Shaw is a former non-prospect who emerged with a strong half-season in 2015 and was essentially handed the third base job in 2016 when the Sox grew frustrated with Pablo Sandoval. He is a strong defender at third base, but struggled offensively. Indeed, it was those struggles that led the Sox to acquire Aaron Hill from the Brewers last year at the trade deadline.
In addition, the Brewers receive Dubon and Pennington, neither of whom are considered Top 100 prospects. Dubon is a 21 year old shortstop who was drafted as a 26th rounder in 2013 and reached Double-A in 2016. He is likely to stay at shortstop who has unexpectedly hit well at all of his minor league stops, but lacks power. Pennington, who is just six feet tall (on a good day) has elite velocity, throwing in the mid-90s. He also had Tommy John Surgery when he was in high school and was drafted in the 29th round in 2014. While he’s had success as a starter in his first two minor league stops, there’s a good chance that he will need to be a reliever over the long term, but perhaps one with the stuff to eventually replace Thornburg.
Given the incredible returns fetched by Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman last season and the fact that Thornburg will be with the Sox for at least three years, this seems like a light return for the Brewers. Shaw provides some value now, especially if he can get his bat back on track. And Dubon and Pennington may be valuable pieces two years down the road. But given the amount teams are willing to pay to acquire elite relievers, it’s a little shocking not to see Milwaukee get a more exciting package for theirs.