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Profiling Trent Thornton

The acquisition of Aledmys Diaz warrants excitement, but it is easy to see why Toronto pulled the trigger.

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-All Star Game
Thornton’s AFL showing was instrumental in solidifying his stock
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Most reactions I saw to the Astros’ recent trade with Toronto were overwhelmingly positive, and it is easy to understand why. With Marwin Gonzalez all but out the door, there was some speculation that Yuli Gurriel might take over the infield utility role, but his inability to play shortstop and less than spectacular work at second base make him less than ideal as a true utility player. Diaz, on the other hand, has logged significant time at second, third and short and provides similar value to Gonzalez with the glove. While Marwin is overall the better player, Diaz will be able to fill a very similar role and could even outperform expectations if his walk rate can rebound.

In return the Blue Jays received Astros starter Trent Thornton, a short righty at 6’0”, 175 lbs. who was the club’s 2015 fifth rounder. Many fans seemed to view this swap as a slam dunk victory for Houston- Thornton’s 4.42 ERA was his best mark at any stop since his first taste of Double-A in 2016, and his strikeout numbers leave a lot to be desired, as he has tended to hover around 18% until improving that mark to 23.6% in 2018. Furthermore, Thornton required protection from the Rule 5 draft this offseason, and the Astros may have had to make a choice between Thornton and Rogelio Armenteros had they not made a trade of some kind.

That said, Thornton is a more coveted commodity than one might guess based on a cursory look at his numbers. Thornton was reportedly a popular name at the 2018 trade deadline, and continued to draw buzz in the recent Arizona Fall League season. While his numbers look like that of a command artist, Thornton has quite a bit of stuff. His fastball can reach the mid-90s (though it sits lower in starts), and the spin rates on his breaking stuff are astronomical. He throws a change in addition to his heater and two breaking pitches, but tends to use his slider more.

Though Thornton has almost exclusively started in the Houston system, he is the type of player that could acclimate very well to a multi-inning relief role. In shorter bursts, Thornton could sit higher with his fastball and focus on a single breaking ball, and could well miss more bats than he has in the past. I expect that the Blue Jays, a progressive club, will experiment with Thornton’s role and that he will pitch significant innings with their big league team in 2019. Long term, I see Thornton settling into a high volume relief role, and I think there’s potential for a significant step forward in the future.

While the Astros did lose a real- and major league ready- talent in this deal, it was still a no-brainer to pull the trigger and acquire Diaz. The Astros have a glut of back end rotation/high volume relief arms in the upper minors even with the losses this offseason, and will have no shortage of options to fill out their staff with or without Thornton. Bringing Diaz into the fold eliminates a significant need for the Astros while dealing from a strength, making this trade a true win-win on paper.