Thornton's Red Flag Year

Thornton's Red Flag Year
He's just a little aging, he's still good, he's still good! // Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune

Baseball is unreliable; not in the sense that it's always late with the rent, or it keeps raiding the liquor cabinet, but that it has so much random variation that 162 games are needed to discern differences in true talent level.  And even then some things get messed up.

Example?  This year someone is going to win the AL Central, and it's a damn shame.

But in this world of perpetual instability, several things are marked out as particularly unreliable.

-The performances of relievers

-The performance of aging relievers

-The performance of relievers who are heavily dependent on overpowering velocity

-The performance of anyone fitting the above criteria from game-to-game, week-to-week, etc.

Matt Thornton's 2011 season has offered two sorts of blips in this regard.

First was his awful April.  His command fell apart, he walked over 6 batters per 9 innings, and generally looked like the live-armed wreck that Seattle kicked out of town for Joe Borchard.  A guy whose lack of control reduced him to grooving his otherwise potent fastballs.  A guy who gives up home runs to Dan Johnson (hint: he's not in the show anymore).

It was awful, but it passed, and every month since has featured a FIP under 3.00 for Thornton.

Second has been this season in general.

On the surface--and where else does a reliever really need to venture?--it's been fine.  He's rebounded to reduce his ERA to 3.46 (I wanna say it eclipsed 4,000 in April), and no one has ever gotten kicked out of the pen for a 8.77 K/9, 3.69 BB/9 combo.

That and his velocity is pretty much exactly the same (95.8 mph on average).  Given that all he throws is fastballs and he's 34 years old, that's of note.

But while Matt's been good, he hasn't been Thornton.  His K-rate is down to levels that predate his three prime years of '08-'10, his pitch value for his fastball is way down while his dabbling with secondary offerings has been essentially futile, and a 8.6 % swinging strike rate isn't just down from his All-Star levels, it's currently the worst showing of his Major League career.

Again, this is perfectly fine for regular contribution out of the bullpen, but the White Sox are paying Thornton to be an elite reliever through 2013.  With that and his age possibly bringing worse peripherals, it would behoove the Sox to cash out on Thornton while his product stays similar and his reputation precedes him.

Unless, of course, the White Sox need him too much.

Currently, the White Sox are awash in lefties thanks to the presence of Will Ohman and Chris Sale.

Yet Sale is starting to eviscerate hitters at a level that will really make his absence from the 2012 rotation an embarrassment, and I'm not sure what Ozzie Guillen thinks of Will Ohman, but it's not as a set-up man, it's not as just a LOOGY, and it's certainly not as someone who's ever getting promoted.

If the White Sox ship out Thornton, they'll almost certainly need another lefty to come back and fill Ozzie Guillen's (or whoever, no one really trusts Ohman.  Poor guy) designs for a pen.

With not a soul nearing being major-league ready (let alone reliable) who throws the sinister way on the farm, the Sox would be in the same position again; pondering heavy investments in the most notoriously unreliable position group.

If they're going to wade into the morass of aging failed starters again, well, then...why not Thornton?  He's healthy with the same heat, and at least has shown the potential to be an elite reliever.

While there will be less expensive options, by the nature of the profession they could perform like Linebrink, and the great luck of Crain and Ohman both improving under their new deals can't hope to be repeated.

Paying big money for relievers and being unable to afford to sell assets at the perfect time seem like the hallmarks of poor roster construction, but every time Chris Sale snaps off a sweeping slider, just remember that it's all in the name of squeezing out maximum production from the most talented, cost-controlled asset in the organization.

I find it makes Thornton running on fumes a bit easier to bear.  Especially since it's out of the bullpen.


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