A Retrospective on the Tyler Thornburg Trade

In December of 2016, the Boston Red Sox acquired Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Travis Shaw, as well as prospects Mauricio Dubon, Josh Pennington, and Yeison Coca. The move, orchestrated by Boston’s President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski, was made with the aim of bolstering the Red Sox’ bullpen for the upcoming 2017 season.

Dombrowski had good reason to target Thornburg, as the then 27-year-old right-hander was coming off his best season yet with Milwaukee. He went 8-5 in his 2016 campaign with the Brewers, pitching a career-high 67 innings and recording an impressive 2.15 ERA with 90 strikeouts while also notching 13 saves. Thornburg was billed as a hard-throwing strikeout machine who could be a tremendous set-up man to get the game to Boston’s closer at that time, Craig Kimbrel.

Unfortunately for the Red Sox, things never panned out that way once Thornburg arrived in Boston. He would miss the entire 2017 season due to thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. The Red Sox won the American League East division that year, but they were unceremoniously dumped out of the playoffs by the Houston Astros in the American League Divisional Series.

Thornburg would go on to pitch in just 41 games with the Red Sox over the next two seasons, and suddenly the fireballing strikeout machine that was meant to bolster the bullpen was nowhere to be found. Thornburg’s career with the Red Sox resulted in a 2-0 record with an appalling 6.43 ERA in those 41 games. He was released on Wednesday after refusing an assignment to Triple-A Pawtucket.

Many Red Sox fans have been frustrated with the entire Tyler Thornburg experience from day one, mainly due to what the team gave up in return for him. Travis Shaw was the primary piece that was sent to Milwaukee in return for Thornburg, and he fueled the fire of Boston’s aggravation by having the most productive year of his young career with the Brewers in 2017. Shaw finished with a .273 average while smashing 31 home runs and driving in 101 runs through 144 games. He followed up his impressive 2017 season by hitting a career-high 32 home runs in 2018, while also showing off improved plate discipline by drawing 78 walks and only striking out 108 times.

Shaw is off to a dreadful start in the 2019 season, however, hitting just .164 with six home runs through 57 games. He has, of course, been hurt by lack of playing time due to Milwaukee’s crowded infield. Despite his rough first half in 2019, Shaw remains a player that Red Sox fans lament losing due to the production he has put up in just a few short years with the Brewers.

The player that the Red Sox will likely end up regret losing more is 24-year-old Mauricio Dubon, who was sent to Milwaukee along with Shaw in the trade. Dubon has rapidly ascended through Milwaukee’s minor league system and, as a result, was just recently called up to the big league club where he will see a good amount of playing time as the club chases another run at the postseason. Dubon, a natural shortstop who has also seen time at second base and the outfield, was the Red Sox’ #10 ranked prospect at the time of the trade. He has hit a combined .301 with 24 home runs in just over 100 games with Milwaukee’s Triple-A affiliate in San Antonio.

With Dustin Pedroia‘s baseball future in question, Dubon could have served as a promising insurance piece for the Red Sox moving forward. Instead, the Red Sox have had to call up their only other prospect in the infield, Michael Chavis, and press him into duty at first base due to injuries.

This trade, despite all of its downfalls, has not crippled the Red Sox in any way. The team still went on the win the World Series last year and, more importantly, they are not missing Travis Shaw over at the third base position. Rafael Devers has quickly turned into a star at the hot corner in Boston, hitting .324 with 16 home runs so far in the 2019 seasons. The aforementioned Michael Chavis has also adapted nicely to the first base position as well, and he is showing off the raw power that made him a promising prospect in the first place. Chavis is batting .263 with 15 home runs through his first 69 games and has proven to be a valuable member of the 2019 Red Sox team that has been hurt by injuries early on.

We tend to judge trades by deciding which side “won the trade” and which side did not. It is irrefutable that the Milwaukee Brewers won this trade, as both Travis Shaw and Mauricio Dubon figure to play key roles in the team’s success going forward. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have had to cut bait with Tyler Thornburg, who never was able to provide what the team was hoping for.

Injuries are a real and harsh aspect of professional sports and in the case of Tyler Thornburg, his injuries derailed what looked like an extremely promising future. The Red Sox traded for a pitcher who had an outstanding 2016 season, and relentless shoulder injuries took that pitcher away from them. Dave Dombrowski will always be criticized for the move by the ever-impassioned Red Sox fan base. Hopefully for him and fans alike, the meteoric rise of Rafael Devers, along with their most recent World Series victory, can take away the sting of a trade gone wrong.

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