When looking at Matt Thornton’s career with the Chicago White Sox, it’s hard to believe he was acquired for Joe Borchard. Both players had fallen out of favor with their teams at the time of the trade, and both have since gone in very different directions. Under the tutelage of Don Cooper, Matt Thornton has blossomed into one of the best relievers in the game. While Bobby Jenks was the most recognizable name in the White Sox bullpen, Thornton has been the better pitcher over the last three seasons. Thornton’s dominance hasn’t gone unnoticed by the White Sox, who signed him to a two-year, $12 million extension Sunday. Despite his age, Thornton has yet to show any signs of decline, making this contract a huge win for the White Sox.
The extension ensures Thornton’s place on the White Sox through the 2013 season. Following the 2013 season, the White Sox hold a $6 million club option. The extension, however, won’t kick in until after the 2011 season; meaning Thornton will only make $3 million this year. If the marginal value of a win is $5 million, it’s easy to see why the White Sox would extend Thornton.
Over the past three seasons, Thornton has averaged 2.2 WAR. During those seasons, however, the White Sox have only paid him $4.45 million in total, making him one of the better bargains in baseball. By paying Thornton $5.5 million in 2012 and 2013, the White Sox need Thornton to post a little over 1 WAR in those seasons to justify the contract. Since he’s been a member of the White Sox, Thornton has never posted a season with a sub-1 WAR.
Thornton, however, isn’t the youngest member of the White Sox pen. At 34, Thornton isn’t the safest bet to continue his dominance over the course of the extension. For a pitcher who relies so much on velocity, his decline phase could be drastic if he can’t adapt. At the same time, Thornton hasn’t shown any signs of decline over the past three seasons. His strikeout rate jumped to 12.02 last season, while his ERA, FIP, and xFIP all dropped to career lows. Perhaps more importantly, his fastball velocity was up last season (from 95.7 to 96.1), proving his signature skill hasn’t diminished.
Since Thornton agreed to the extension, there has been a lot of talk about whether he is now the favorite to take over the closer role this season. Thornton has mainly been a set-up man throughout his career, and that may be one of the main reasons this deal is such a bargain for the White Sox. Despite the fact that Thornton was the better pitcher over the past three seasons, Bobby Jenks still managed to sign for more money this off-season due to his “experience” as a closer. As the White Sox “relief ace,” Thornton pitched at the most crucial moments in a game instead of racking up saves, which likely held his cost down. The White Sox employed Thornton in an ideal manner over the past three seasons, and it has allowed them to save money over the course of his extension.
The White Sox slogan for the upcoming season is “All In,” and the Thornton extension is a major reason why the Sox have been able to add big contracts recently. By signing their current players to contracts under the market value; the White Sox have been able to overpay to keep fan-favorites like Paul Konerko, while simultaneously absorbing the costs of Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy. With the extension, the White Sox locked up one of the best relief pitchers in baseball on the cheap. It’s moves like these that allow the White Sox to take on big risks each season while still managing to field a competitive team.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.