Tuesday, November 30th is the amended deadline for MLB teams to tender 2022 contracts to players under team control. The Toronto Blue Jays have a large class of 12 arbitration eligibles this year, but almost all are slam dunks to be tendered so we’ll look into the few cases for whom that’s perhaps not the case leading into the deadline.
Background: Acquired from Houston in advance of the 2018 Rule 5 protection deadline and added to 40-man; career 5.00 ERA / 4.74 FIP in 209 innings (1.7 fWAR / 1.1 bWAR)
2021 production: 4.78 ERA and 5.46 FIP in 49 innings; -0.4 fWAR / -0.4 bWAR.
2022 projections: 4.32 ERA/4.34 ERA by Steamer (32 IP); 4.28 ERA by Marcel (61 IP)
Status: 2.130 years of service (Super Two), $592,900 platform year salary
2022 MLBTR Salary Projection: $900,000
Estimated likelihood of tender: 75%
With the rebuild having entered full teardown mode a few months earlier after the half-hearted 2018 attempt at contending went off the rails, in November 2018 the Jays elected to flip Aledmys Diaz’s four years of control not a year after grabbing him off the non-tender scrap heap from St. Louis.
A quality second division regular makes for optimal infield depth on a contender; conversely Houston was quite deep in pitching and faced a 40-man crunch. Hence the two lined up on a deal of Diaz for Trent Thornton. The latter had ascended to AAA and also shown some dynamic stuff in shorter outings in the Arizona Fall League, and basically was big league ready looking for an opening.
Thornton not only won a starting spot in the rotation out of Spring Training, but ended up the team leader in innings pitched (and only pitcher to throw 150 innings). It was an uneven rookie season, and he was usually just five-and-dive, but made a full season worth of starts and struck out almost a batter an inning while keeping walks reasonably in check and not getting hit too hard. He was a solid backend starter.
That 2019 campaign had him penciled into the rotation for 2020, but like that year for so much of the world, things quickly went off the rails. He hit the IL with elbow inflammation before his second start, came back for two appearances a month later as the Jays tried to cobble a rotation but required elbow surgery that ended what was essentially a lost year.
He stated 2021 in the bullpen, seemingly tabbed as a multi-inning guy, made a few short starts essentially as a opener to bullpen games out of necessity in late-April. By late May he was a basically a pure short reliever making one inning outings, and carried a sub-3.00 ERA into June though with poor peripherals. The high wire act caught up to him in lte-June with a series of bad outings, and he spent most of the second half and stretch run relegated to Buffalo.
At 28 in 2022, Thornton’s career is at something of a crossroads. Is he fully healthy? He dodged Tommy John surgery in 2020, but often that amounts to delaying what becomes inevitable. On the other hand, he didn’t miss any time in 2021 and the stuff wasn’t down.
The bigger question is his role going forward. The Jays were pretty thin in the rotation starting 2021, so moving him to the bullpen seemingly would indicate that door is closed, but then again they were thin in the pen to be injuries so that may have been as much due to necessity. For a while, they did seem to be stretching him out. Perhaps with both the rotation and bullpen foundations a lot firmer already, he’s lengthened back out as rotation depth.
If indeed that ship his sailed, there’s still the question of what his future bullpen role looks like. Does he become a “long man”/multi-inning reliever? Converted purely to a short reliever, perhaps with his stuff ticking up more and paring back the arsenal to his best secondaries? I’ve often thought some best outings were longer outings, and I dislike how pitchers are often pigeonholed into either short relief or starting roles with little room in between. But too often he’s come in completely ineffective and needed 30 pitches to get through a first inning.
The bottom line is the cost to keep him is negligible, and he still has options so that means he’ll probably be tendered. The only factor on the contrary is that if the Jays have lost confidence and he’s ticketed for Triple-A, it figures to a bit of a hefty salary in Buffalo since arbitration-eligible players generally don’t have contracts with split level salaries like pre-arb players who can be renewed by teams and have it written on.
The Jays can’t afford to dig themselves big holes in the standings again, so there’s not going to be much rope for players to figure things out at the big league level. The Jays are now at the 40-man limit, so further additions from this point necessitate subtractions. At this point, on the merits Thornton is squarely on that fringe, and just having major league flexibility/options may not be enough.
Should the Jays tender a 2022 contract to Trent Thornton?
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