Rumors circulated last week that the Brewers’ negotiations with the Mets stalled when New York requested Tyler Thornburg in exchange for first baseman Ike Davis. Many fans and internet commenters balked at the idea of trading Thornburg for the underperforming Davis, many suggesting that the six years of control for Thornburg was too valuable to trade for three expensive years of an uninspiring solution for the hole at first.
But are six years of control for Thornburg really that valuable?
Entering the 2013 season, Thornburg was rated the second best prospect in the Brewers Farm System by Baseball Prospectus. He has a solid three pitch repertoire with a slightly above average fastball, but his 5’ 11” frame makes it unlikely that he’ll be able to handle a heavy workload as a starter. He’s a potential 4th starter and should at least stick in the bullpen.
It’s important to remember that “potential” doesn’t mean that he’ll reach that as his ceiling. Thornburg has the stuff to pitch in Milwaukee and his debut last season was encouraging. In 66.2 innings, he posted an ERA just over 2.00 and a 1.185 WHIP, though factors like his 6.5 k/9 contribute to a FIP a little over 3.00.
Throwing 66.2 major league innings (140+ combined) is still a long way from carrying a 180 inning starting workload. Thornburg’s consistent string of starts came in September when it gets a little trickier to judge success against September call-ups and teams with a solid position in the standings. Thornburg should get his chance in the rotation in 2014, but I think it’s more likely that he’ll end up in the bullpen where the workload will be manageable for his frame and his fastball will play up.
That’s where the value of six club control years comes into question. Relief pitchers throw a limited number of innings and tend to have a lot of volatility from season to season because a poor run heavily skews stats with less opportunity to get it straightened out on the mound.
Take John Axford for example. He started off with a strong performance with the Brewers in 2010-2011, assuming the closing duties from a past-his-prime Trevor Hoffman. Axford maintained a stellar 11.1 k/9 before his walk rate and HR/9 spiked in 2012 and he was eventually a marginalized part of the bullpen before he was traded to St. Louis in August of 2013.
Axford was lights out and there was a discussion of a long-term deal before he reached arbitration, but he quickly became an overpaid relief pitcher in his first year of arbitration and was non-tendered by the Cardinals after the 2013 season, even though he threw a solid 10 innings in the regular season and only gave up one run in the post season.
The bottom falls off the value of a relief pitcher extremely quickly once they’re eligible to make money, and that salary spike happens after three seasons. So if Tyler Thornburg is likely a relief pitcher, even a very good reliever, should the Brewers really count on years four through six as being a valuable commodity for the price they’re likely to pay? That seems like a shaky bet.
Maybe Ike Davis isn’t the best offer the Brewers could field for Thornburg. Even though Davis has had his moments for the Mets, there is no guarantee that he’s even a replacement level player (though close to replacement is an improvement over the production the Brewers got out of first base in 2013). By holding onto Thornburg and hoping that he can stick in the rotation, Milwaukee’s front office risks missing an opportunity to cash in on the idea of Thornburg as a starter before his value takes a hit when he needs to be moved to the bullpen.
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