The Boston Red Sox made the offseason's first big trade splash on Tuesday, swapping a package of prospects for one of the best pitchers in the Midwest. Later in the day, they also acquired Chris Sale.
Before turning the business end of their starting rotation into a baseball writer's wet dream, both in terms of talent and pun-ability ("Yankees can't buy a run at Sale, Price; shut out in doubleheader" coming to a NY Daily News front page near you), Boston made the back of their bullpen into a similarly talented juggernaut. Milwaukee Brewers closer Tyler Thornburg will join last season's blockbuster acquisition, Craig Kimbrel, in the Sox 'pen as contenders continue to place a premium on talented relievers.
The pair of acquisitions positions the Boston pitching staff, already a very talented group, squarely in the conversation about the best units in baseball. The starting rotation will have a reigning Cy Young winner — Rick Porcello — who might be the third-best pitcher on the team, and the relief corps will feature the 12th-best reliever in baseball by fWAR (a subpar metric that currently fits my narrative) in 2016, and also Kimbrel. Perhaps forgotten after missing the 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery, the Red Sox will also return reliever Carson Smith, who was acquired in a seemingly lopsided trade with Seattle one year ago today.
In exchange for Thornburg, Boston sent third baseman Travis Shaw to Milwaukee along with a pair of prospects: SS Mauricio Dubon (Boston's #12 prospect per MLB Pipeline) and RHP
Chad Josh Pennington (#22). Shaw will slot in as the everyday third baseman for the Brewers in 2017, shifting Jonathan Villar to the keystone and Scooter Gennett to the bench or to a new team. The former wildly outperformed the latter last season; is younger, cheaper, and under control for more years; and has more positional flexibility. Despite signing a one-year, $2.5 million contact last week to avoid arbitration, it's likely that Gennett's days in Milwaukee are numbered; the Brewers have a number of cheaper players with higher upside who can back up a variety of positions on their 40-man roster.
For Milwaukee, dealing Thornburg is simply the next domino to fall in a dramatic rebuild entering its third season. Pending further moves this offseason, the Brewers roster will now comprise 17 pre-arbitration players, six players in arbitration (Gennett and Kirk Nieuwenhuis have already signed one-year deals), and just two players who have amassed enough MLB service time to negotiate their own contracts. With Ryan Braun and Matt Garza very much on the trading block, it is exceedingly possible that the Brewers will enter the 2017 season without employing a single baseball player who is being compensated according to his fair market value.
In Boston, the departing Shaw helps the Red Sox clear a logjam in the Folks Named Travis department. While arguably the most important position for the organization to fill, the Sox were dealing from a position of minor-league strength, with 1B Sam Travis (Boston's #4 prospect) and LHP Travis Lakins (#9) both looking primed to fill that role with the major league club in the next year or two.
In addition to clearing a spot for a Good Name Haver, this deal appeared for about three hours to clear the path to the major leagues for 2B/3B Yoan Moncada, the top prospect in all of baseball according to most folks who care about such things. Moncada belongs to the Chicago White Sox now, however, as part of the package that brought Sale to Boston. Until Rafael Devers is ready for The Show, it looks like the Beantown hot corner will belong to Pablo Sandoval, Boston's $95 million man.
If I told you that the starting third baseman for a championship-caliber team was a chubby fella named Pablo S., you'd be forgiven for assuming I was playing Backyard Baseball. Yet, if Twitter reports are to be believed, it looks like Sandoval has slimmed down quite a bit.
Dave Dombrowski says Sandoval is in "tremendous shape" - here's ur proof! Photo courtesy Alvaro Hernandez - #redsox #wbz pic.twitter.com/RyoYyQEnqd— Dan Roche (@RochieWBZ) December 6, 2016
It's hard to blame the Red Sox for giving Sandoval another chance to become the player they thought they were getting when they signed him to a five-year deal in 2014. The 30-year-old missed nearly all of the 2016 season with a torn labrum and was a disaster in his only healthy season in Beantown. If a bounceback season fails to materialize, however, the Red Sox will be without a legitimate in-house alternative to turn to (yes, I know that Brock Holt exists).
On its surface, this trade looks like your boilerplate present-value-for-future-value swap. However, Thornburg is no rental; he is entering his first year of arbitration. With his 2017 salary still undetermined and his track record as a bona fide closer limited to a couple of months with a non-contender, Boston has acquired a high-end reliever whose salary demands won't be inflated by save totals. Boston has pushed their chips to the center of the table with their moves on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Brewers GM David Stearns has signaled to his fan base that the rebuild is far from over, and that no MLB asset, no matter how far from free agency they are, is off limits.
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Travis Sarandos is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, a Taylor Swift enthusiast and a nice person. You can follow him on Twitter at @travis_mke, but you shouldn't.