When we took a look at Tyler Thornburg as a possible trade asset a couple weeks ago, we talked about the increasingly insane trade market for quality relievers and tried to gauge what would've been an appropriate return for Thornburg.
With the understanding Thornburg ranked below the likes of Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman but was still coming off a very impressive season and had three years of team control left, I floated the idea of getting three players back for Thornburg, ideally with one of them being an above-average prospect.
It turns out that's exactly what David Stearns was able to swing in Tuesday's deal with Boston. The Brewers are acquiring 3B/1B Travis Shaw, RHP Josh Pennington and infield prospect Mauricio Dubon (plus a player to be named later or cash).
Dubon was recently ranked as Boston's 7th-best prospect by Baseball Prospectus, and was identified by John Sickels as a possible sleeper prospect with the potential to bloom before this past season. Pennington has some intrigue as a possible future bullpen piece in the Thornburg mold (undersized for a starter but with a good fastball/curveball combo). But it’s Shaw that will allow the Brewers to see some immediate returns from the deal.
The 26-year-old Shaw still has five years of team control left, having only played in 210 games in two seasons for Boston. He's hit .251/.312/.442 in those games, but those numbers are dragged down by an inability (to this point) to hit left-handed pitching. Shaw struggled to a pre-2016 Scooter Gennett-like line of .187/.235/.364 against southpaws in 115 plate appearances this year, while also seeing his overall production crater in the second half of the season. After getting off to a .269/.332/.456 start in the first half, Shaw limped to the finish line with a .194/.259/.360 line against pitchers of all handedness in the second half, which probably contributed to Boston's willingness to deal him.
Despite hitting the second half wall in 2016, the addition of Shaw will likely continue to have ripple effects across the rest of the Brewers' 25-man roster next year. You can probably pencil him in as the starting third baseman for Opening Day, and even if he needs to be platooned to protect him from lefties, the Brewers have Hernan Perez (.278/.301/.486 against LHP last year) and Jonathan Villar (.309/.385/.545 against LHP) available to slide in to the spot.
With Villar enjoying a breakout year in 2016, though, it will be extremely hard for the Brewers to take him out of the everyday lineup. That means the addition of Shaw could also mean changes at second base, which Stearns has already indicated.
Stearns confirmed Villar will mostly play at 2B. Said Gennett will battle for playing time.— Tom (@Haudricourt) December 6, 2016
Gennett is due a significant raise this winter in his first year of arbitration, and unlike Villar or Perez, can't play anywhere else on the diamond. Stearns may be saying Gennett will fight for time right now, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see Scooter also shipped out before the winter ends. With Stearns building a roster emphasizing versatility -- even when it comes to his corner infielders -- Gennett's presence on the roster sticks out like a sore thumb.
The Brewers have already tried a couple former Boston Third Basemen of the Future in Will Middlebrooks and Garin Cecchini, but even if Shaw flames out like the previous two did, they still did a good job on capitalizing on what may be Tyler Thornburg's peak performance level with the addition of another slick-fielding prospect with good bat skills and a pitcher with some serious heat.
Pennington is a 21-year-old who's thrown less than 100 innings in the minors after undergoing Tommy John surgery as a high school senior. Rather than try to rebuild his draft stock by going to college, Pennington signed with the Red Sox as a 29th round pick in 2014 and made his debut in 2015, putting up a 0.82 ERA in 22 innings in rookie ball, striking out 22 but also walking 13 as he worked off the rust. He made 13 starts in Low-A this past season, striking out 49 but walking 27 in 56.2 innings. Clearly, control has been an issue to this point, but he's still young and learning how to pitch after surgery.
The stuff is there to at least dream a little bit on him, though. Like Thornburg, he has a small frame for a guy trying to be a starting pitcher (listed at 6' and 175 pounds), but he throws his fastball between 94 and 98 mph, and offers a 12-6 curveball with a sharp break that could be an above-average pitch. He lacks a quality third pitch at this point, but if he moves into the bullpen in the future, the Thornburg comparisons should keep coming.
But Dubon is where Brewers fans can get the most excited. By all accounts, Dubon is a very good defender at shortstop, but is athletic enough that he could possibly end up being a plus defender in centerfield someday. That versatility alone could end up making him a valuable utility player in the future, but the bat also came along this past season. The 22-year-old split time between High-A (where he hit .306/.387/.379) and Double-A (.339/.371/.538) in 2016, while also stealing a total of 30 bases.
The BABIP numbers would seem to indicate he was fortunate when it came to hit luck this year (.338 BABIP in A+, .374 in AA), but scouts have always been impressed with his contact ability, and he did cut down on the weak contact in 2016. He doesn't walk much, only taking a free pass in 4.1% of his plate appearances in Double-A, but he also doesn't strike out much (13.4% K%), and was still able to develop his power with a .199 ISO during his 62 games in Portland. Even if the power doesn't stick and he doesn't walk a ton, Dubon still figures to be a valuable piece based on defense, speed and contact alone.
Overall, no, it’s not the return the Yankees got for Chapman or Miller, but Thornburg doesn’t have a truly elite pitch like those two do. Even Will Smith had a longer tracker record of success and a better out pitch. Some may argue that the Brewers went for quantity rather than quality here, but three (and possibly four) players with a good chance to contribute at the Major League effort is more than adequate in return for Thornburg.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs