Shipping Up To Boston: Matt Thornton Dealt to Red Sox

Earlier tonight, the White Sox made the first of what could be more than a couple of trades in the coming weeks. Long-time Sox reliever and left-hander Matt Thornton was sent to the Boston Red Sox for AA outfielder Brandon Jacobs. The White Sox also sent $750K to Boston, meaning the Red Sox will have to pay the bulk of Thornton’s remaining $3.5 million dollar contract.

Before we take a look back at Matt Thornton in a White Sox uniform, let’s first look at what the Sox are getting in Jacobs.

Brandon Jacobs: What to Know

A tenth round draft pick in 2009, Jacobs was actually thinking about playing football for Auburn out of high school rather than playing baseball. It makes him similar to other Sox recent draftees: a guy who was a two-sport star deciding to shift his focus to baseball full-time for the first time upon being drafted (Jared Mitchell, Tim Anderson).

This season, the 22-year-old Jacobs was hitting .244 with 11 home runs and 44 RBI in High-A Salem, and was recently promoted to AA Portland. In Salem, Jacobs was a high strikeout guy (88 in 81 games), but 35 of his 71 hits went for extra-bases, and he also tallied 10 steals. He’s also walked 33 times, which is on pace to shatter his base-on-balls numbers from the past two seasons (39 in 2012 and 43 in 2011). Because of that, he had a respectable OBP in Salem (.334), a nice OPS (.774), and more importantly, the numbers may suggest he’s starting to get a better grasp of the strike zone.

Where did he rank in the BoSox system? He’s been pretty much all over the board, but no websites we came across had him in the Top 10. Before the season, had him 11th, Baseball America 13th, and had him 24th. Scouts were a bit higher on him after hitting .303 in 2011 for Class-A Greenville, but his average dipped to .252 in High-A Salem in 2012, and his ranking slipped because of that and the continually high strikeout rate.

Even with the wide disparity in rankings, the book on Jacobs seems to be pretty consistent. He has terrific power potential and a lot of athleticism, but is still learning to grasp the concept of plate discipline (but, as we mentioned above, his walk rate is up this season). Scouts seem to also believe that Jacobs isn’t a good defensive outfielder with just an average arm, so there’s even the possibly that the White Sox decide to move Jacobs to another position. With a 6’1, 225lb frame, first base would probably be the spot since his arm doesn’t appear to be anything special. However, the position change is pure speculation on my part.

For now, we will likely see the Georgia native start out in AA considering he just received a promotion to that level a few days ago (played just two games in AA, going 2-for-6 with a triple). He’s an acquisition that may frustrate White Sox fans, as we’ve seen the whole “toolsy outfielder” label before with prospects that fizzle out. However, Hahn said Jacobs “was the most impactful player available to us,” leading me to believe that he was probably the best prospect available for Thornton.

This is really Rick Hahn’s first big trade in his GM tenure, so let’s see how this plays out before deeming this move a bad one. Heck, if the Sox are getting a prospect with two “plus” tools (power and speed in this case) for Matt Thornton, that could mean they’ll get some real legitimate prospects if they decide to deal Jesse Crain, Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, etc.

Thornton's Tenure

Over the past few seasons, Matt Thornton hasn’t been what he used to be (my dad's coined the phrase "Thornton's out of gas" in my household because of his dip in production). We’ve seen his K/9IP dip every season since 2010, and he’s currently at a career low 6.75. Likewise, his ERA has risen in every season in that span (currently at 3.86), and his BB/9IP ratio is at 3.21 this season, his highest since 2007. His WAR is also at 0.0, the lowest since his first full big year in the big leagues (2005 in Seattle). After recording 10 losses out of the bullpen last season, I guess the continued regression was expected given he’s 36 years old.

However, what White Sox fans should not, and cannot, forget, is that Matt Thornton was a dominant reliever for this ball club for a long time.

For the three-year period of 2008-2010, Thornton was arguably the premier left-handed set-up man in baseball. In each of those seasons, his K/9IP was above 10.00 (12.02 in 2010, when he received an All-Star nod), while his ERA and BB/9IP stayed below 3.00. Not surprisingly, his WAR was 1.8 or higher in every season in that span. In addition, his LOB% (how often inherited runners were stranded when he entered the ballgame) was above 75% in each of those seasons, which more than puts to rest the idea that Thornton was always bad in key situations.  

All those numbers easily show why he’s the Sox all-time leader in holds at 169. While that stat wasn’t tracked until the early 1990s, one can argue that Thornton was one of the best relievers in White Sox history outside of closers. Sure, he’s tailed off the last couple of season and he failed as a closer in 2011 (which is much to the fault of the White Sox for taking a man who was elite at his role and putting him in a different one), but for the large part of his eight year tenure on the Southside, there wasn’t a team in baseball that wanted to see him toe the rubber against #37.

While I pointed out earlier how much Thornton’s production has dipped, he’s still a serviceable left-handed reliever, and Boston needs one badly with the recent injury to Andrew Miller. His numbers have dipped, but not enough for him to be given for nothing, making this the perfect time for the White Sox to cut ties with him. From Thornton’s perspective, he has a great chance to return to the playoffs and win his first World Series ring in Boston. Since he was a good clubhouse guy and a class act as well, I’m sure many White Sox fans will be cheering Thornton on during this pennant race.

Thornton’s Sox tenure began in 2006, when Kenny Williams sent Seattle failed outfield prodigy Joe Borchard for him. It’s more than safe to say that K.W. won that deal, and given the fact that the Sox received a decent prospect for him when he's on the decline, maybe Hahn strikes gold this time around as well.