Healthy Thornburg could be key for Boston 'pen

Right-hander aiming for bounce-back season after shoulder troubles

January 25th, 2019

BOSTON -- Joe Kelly left for the Dodgers and has yet to be replaced. remains a free agent, and there are no signals at the moment that the Red Sox will make the financial investment it will take to bring him back.

In other words, a bullpen that is in a bit of flux for the defending World Series champions could finally use a healthy dose of .

There is good news on that front. Thornburg has reason to believe his right shoulder is finally strong enough to make up for what was essentially a lost first two seasons in Boston.

"You always expect different things from guys and there's always someone that comes out of the woods, basically, that just saves the season," said Thornburg. "[Ryan] Brasier last year. It always seems to happen."

Nobody is more eager to emerge from the woods -- and the training room -- than Thornburg, who underwent surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder in June of 2017.

"Yeah, I definitely feel with where I'm at right now, I could be one of those guys that can be relied on pretty heavily," Thornburg said.

Two offseasons ago, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski dealt to the Brewers for Thornburg. While Shaw has clocked 63 homers over the last two seasons for Milwaukee, Thornburg has pitched a total of just 25 games for Boston, all last season when he had a 5.63 ERA.

Though Thornburg did show flashes in some of those outings, the Red Sox opted to shut him down just before the team's dominant run in the postseason.

"We knew that there's no point in trying to push it because you try to come back and you end up throwing a lot, especially in the playoffs when you have to be able to throw every single day, and there's a risk you might do something to it that you're not going to be able to come back from," Thornburg said.

"So they made that decision, which took it out of my hands and made it a lot easier on me because as a competitor, you're never going to be able to give in to that. So I really am thankful, and I can't imagine trying to rehab and all that kind of stuff, only to ruin my career."

Now the 30-year-old is out to resurrect his career and finally help the Red Sox get some value back in that trade with Milwaukee.

"We'll be interested to see how he throws the ball. First of all, you start from the health perspective. He says he's healthy, our training staff says he's healthy," said Dombrowski. "He has been throwing. I think he's coming into camp a little bit more prepared than he normally would be knowing that his situation is different than it's been in the past."

The situation is this: The Red Sox avoided arbitration with Thornburg by signing him to a one-year, $1.75 million non-guaranteed contract. There are incremental incentive bonuses for 45, 50, 55 and 60 appearances that can bring the total up to $2.15 million.

"I'm not worried about it," Thornburg said. "I told my agent that I felt comfortable with the incentive idea because I know how I feel right now. If I wasn't, I would have been like, 'Try to get as much money on the top as possible.' I feel like that should say something about where I'm at."

Thornburg has no Minor League options. And the fact that the contract is not guaranteed puts the pressure on Thornburg to prove himself during Spring Training.

"Normally, Spring Training is to get ready for the season, and I just have to come in with a little bit different mindset of just trying to be a little bit more competitive in Spring Training, a little bit more fully ready," Thornburg said. "Maybe throw two, three, four more bullpens by the time I get down there just so everything is a little bit more sharp. That way, I can show them I'm where I need to be at the beginning of Spring Training and not have them have to worry about it."

If Thornburg can be anything close to what he was for the Brewers in 2016 (2.15 ERA in 67 outings), the Red Sox could have a top setup man.

Thornburg was enthused by his most recent baseline of shoulder testing that took place in Boston recently.

"It was my best test since coming over, even before surgery, with where my arm was coming over in the first year," Thornburg said. "It was a pretty good jump, especially from the last time we did it during the season. We didn't do it after I got shut down. In-season, we did it maybe a couple of times. It's a good bit better than that."