The Brewers have made a lot of progress in a short period of time when it comes to their rebuild. A fair share of that progress has come from their willingness to trade away relievers for prospects that could have more value than a single relief pitcher could provide down the road.
Including Jeremy Jeffress in the Jonathan Lucroy trade to Texas allowed the Brewers to pick up and extra prospect in the deal. Will Smith drew a return of a possible replacement for Lucroy and a former first round pick. The perceived value of good relief pitching has never been higher -- just ask the Yankees, who did even better than the Brewers, cashing in Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman for a ridiculous haul of eight players.
Relievers only appear in small fractions of games, playing fewer innings than just about anyone on the roster. Yet for contending teams, good ones can be very valuable. Bad ones can sink those hopes of contention. But for a rebuilding team like the Brewers, a good reliever doesn't carry as much value. After all, a shutdown presence at the end of the game doesn't mean as much when you're rarely carrying a lead in those late innings.
That's why it may be within the Brewers' best interests to consider dealing Tyler Thornburg this offseason.
Thornburg may be one of the most interesting players still on the roster this winter, because you could make equally strong arguments to trade him or offer him an extension. As we noted here on BCB yesterday, he's done nothing but improve since becoming a full-time reliever. He ditched a less effective changeup in favor of focusing on a fastball/curveball combo, seeing the curveball become a true strikeout pitch and upping the velocity on his fastball. For anyone thinking Thornburg may have been getting by on smoke and mirrors, consider this tidbit:
fun stat from fantasy research: Tyler Thornburg allowed a .273 SLG on his fastball. only RP better? Aroldis Chapman (.194)— Jack Moore (@jh_moore) November 22, 2016
That effectively shows very few batters could hit Thornburg's fastball, and even if they could make contact, they weren't hitting it hard. It's even more impressive when you consider Thornburg is basically working at 10 mph slower than Chapman.
While extending Thornburg and buying out a couple (or all) of his arbitration years before he truly makes his mark as a relief ace is attractive, if the front office thinks they're still a year or two away from making a true playoff push, it might make more sense to deal him now.
Thornburg's a failed starter that only recently found his calling in the bullpen, but he's at least shown some ability to handle the late innings. It's actually somewhat similar to what happened with Smith in Kansas City before coming to the Brewers as a full-time reliever. Of course, a lot has changed since the Brewers acquired Smith for Nori Aoki in a straight one-for-one deal in the winter following 2013. If David Stearns traded Thornburg for an okay outfielder, the Brewers blogosphere would likely lead a revolt.
The Smith trade out of Milwaukee might be more in line for what the Brewers should be looking for in return for Thornburg, but even then, Thornburg pitched much better to close the year than Smith did leading up to the Giants trade (Smith had a 4.28 FIP on the day of the trade, was struggling to find the strike zone and giving up home runs when he did). It'd be reasonable to expect a better return than Phil Bickford and Andrew Susac.
At the same time, Thornburg doesn't have a game-changing pitch like Chapman and isn't an ironman like Miller. Getting a prospect the quality of Clint Frazier or Gleyber Torres (most likely) won't happen. Some have brought up the deal that sent Ken Giles and a minor leaguer to Houston in exchange for Mark Appel, Vince Velasquez and three others as another comparison point. It's an interesting thought, but at the same time, Giles was much younger (entering his age 25 season), had posted a 1.56 ERA in 113 games for the Phillies and is under team control through 2020. A lot of market craziness has ensued since that trade, but even with that in mind, a haul like that for Thornburg would be a (welcome) surprise.
Still, considering that any team trading for Thornburg would be trading for three years of team control, Stearns would have a right to shoot high in trade negotiations. Why not ask for three players in return, with at least one being an above-average prospect? If Brett Cecil is fetching four-year deals for $30 million, Thornburg looks like a steal.
However, Stearns may also be wise to hang onto Thornburg until next July. Conventional wisdom says there are more potential buyers in the offseason when everyone fancies themselves a contender, but like we saw this year, July breeds desperation -- and that’s a better environment to work in if you’re a team looking to deal a potential difference maker in the bullpen.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs