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Brewers Extension Candidates: RHP Tyler Thornburg

With Tyler Thornburg a rising star on the team, is it a good time to extend him?

Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Tyler Thornburg is a rising star for the Brewers. After dealing with injuries and a demotion in the last few years, he’s gone from a failed starter to a key piece of the Brewers bullpen going forward. The future looks very promising for Thornburg, which means it’s time to consider what to do with his contract as he enters arbitration eligibility. Should the Brewers extend him? If they do, how much should he get?

The Case For An Extension

The relief market is in high demand right now. Relievers are getting massive deals as teams have seen what a dependable arm in the bullpen can do for them, especially in the playoffs. Brett Cecil just got $30.5 million from the Cardinals. Huston Street got $18 million from the Angels. Tyler Clippard got $12.5 million from the Diamondbacks. Antonio Bastardo got $12 million from the Mets. Even old Brewer John Axford got $10 million from the Athletics.

While these aren’t names that Thornburg would be competing against in year one of arbitration, it’s something the Brewers have to keep in mind as they rebuild. Dependable bullpen arms are critical to a team’s success, and free agents don’t come cheap, especially in today’s market. There’s only so far that minor-league signings will take you as well. Locking up some premium talent to have around for the next time the team competes is vital.

Also, Thornburg’s pitches are showing signs of getting stronger rather than weaker. According to FanGraphs, last season Thornburg’s average fastball velocity jumped to 94 MPH, the highest it has been in his major league career. He stopped throwing his changeup as much and used his curveball more, and the results are better because of it. This suggests that Thornburg is not showing a decline from age yet, and at 28 years old, should be able to maintain his stuff for at least a few more years.

In addition, Thornburg is moving away from being a simple reliever into closer territory. Regardless of what you think about the closer position, it’s a fact that teams pay for saves. Should Thornburg rack up a big save total next season, that will just drive his arbitration value up further. Extending him now provides protection from that possibility.

The Case Against An Extension

Tyler Thornburg’s track record in the last year and a half has been great, but before that is a different story. Last year, he was sent down to Colorado Springs after a rough start to the year. The year before that, he missed most of the year with elbow soreness, narrowly avoiding Tommy John surgery. It’s not a record that would inspire a lot of confidence for most people.

In addition, while elite relief is hard to find, it’s not the hardest position to cover. There’s usually plenty of relievers available should the Brewers choose to continue the “diamond in the rough” route. Plus, they have strong pitching in their system that could eventually fill those holes in the bullpen as well. Betting on Thornburg now would be betting that he continues to improve and pitch at an elite level. It’s definitely a risk, and not one that the Brewers have to take.

What Would an Extension Look Like?

It’s tough to pin a number on Thornburg for an extension, and I went through MLB Trade Rumors databases trying to figure out what would be a reasonable rate for Thornburg. I came up with two cases that would be comparable for him.

The first is Jordan Walden. He received an extension after the 2014 season. Following a season where he posted a 2.88 ERA (124 ERA+) and 3 saves in 58 appearances, he received a two-year, $6.6 million extension ($350K bonus, $2.5 million in 2015, $3.5 million in 2016, option for 2017 with $250K buyout). However, a shoulder injury ended up sidelining him for most of 2015 and all of 2016. That’s the worst case scenario for a signing like this.

The second case is Darren O’Day. He signed a two-year, $5.8 million deal ($2.2 million in 2013, $3.2 million in 2014, $4.25 million option in 2015) before the 2013 season. While O’Day hasn’t ventured into closer territory, he is now considered to be among the elite relief pitchers in the majors. In the past four years, he has a 2.06 ERA (199 ERA+) covering 238 games. His strikeout rate is high (10 K/9) and walk rate is low (2.4 BB/9). Not surprisingly, his option was picked up and he signed a 4-year, $31 million deal before the 2016 season. That’s what Tyler Thornburg could develop into if he continues to get better.

One other factor to consider is Thornburg’s arbitration projection. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to get $2.2 million in his first season of arbitration. It’s a fair amount for a relief pitcher, not too crazy. There’s nothing wrong with signing Thornburg to a deal around that amount.

However, if the team decided to extend him, what would be a good rate/length? Two years to match the deals above would be a fair amount, but it also risks that Thornburg continues to improve and earns more after that deal. The Brewers have some money to spend at the moment, and there’s not many players on the team that I would bet on as much as Thornburg right now. So, I’d look at a deal similar to what Adam Ottavino got last offseason, where he signed a 3-year, $10.4 million extension ($1.3 million in 2016, $2.1 million in 2017, $7 million in 2018). While not a direct comparable to Thornburg, it’s a nice structure to build for a reliever.

Though I wouldn’t load the deal the same, here is what I would put together for Thornburg:

  • 2016 (Arb 1): $2.5 million
  • 2017 (Arb 2): $3.75 million
  • 2018 (Arb 3): $5.75 million
  • 2019 (FA 1): $8.5 million option with $1 million buyout

That’s a 3-year deal with $13 million guaranteed, up to $20.5 million with the option. It’s in line with what other relievers received recently, gives Thornburg nice raises assuming he continues to develop, and also doesn’t eat too much into the Brewers payroll so they can continue to pay other players.

Having a reliable reliever in the bullpen is invaluable for a team like the Brewers. A deal like this one would be very good for the team, balancing the risk of Thornburg declining with the reward of his continued rise. Hopefully it’s something the Brewers can figure out before next season.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs