After being an innings workhorse in 2019, right-hander Trent Thornton had a rough 2020 campaign that resulted in him having elbow surgery in September, shutting him down for the season. With the North Carolina native supposedly healthy for this upcoming spring training, where does Thornton fit into the Toronto Blue Jays plans for the foreseeable future?
Traded from the Houston Astros in exchange for infielder Aledmys Diaz prior to the 2019 campaign, Thornton proved to be a stellar acquisition as he ate up innings while in the rotation for his rookie year. While his 4.84 ERA and 1.406 WHIP are not leading any statistical categories, Thornton was able to stay healthy and pitch deep into games which the Blue Jays needed in 2019 with starters Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez being traded away midway through the season. Thornton would finish the year with 149 strikeouts, 32 games started, and 154.1 innings pitched, leading Blue Jays pitchers in all of these categories for the season.
The 2020 season would take an ugly turn for Thornton, as he would be limited to just three starts, giving up seven earned runs while throwing to an 11.12 ERA and 3.176 WHIP in just 5.2 innings of work. Thornton would finish the season on the injured list as he would be diagnosed with loose bodies in his right elbow which needed to be surgically repaired. Considering he underwent surgery very shortly after the poor outings and was put on the injured list after his first start, one can assume that Thornton was pitching with discomfort through all three of his outings before being shut down for the year.
This year is a bit of a different story for the Blue Jays compared to when Thornton joined the team back in 2019. With the rebuild on the back burner and the likes of Hyun Jin-Ryu and George Springer joining the roster over the past two seasons, it appears that the Blue Jays are looking to become playoff contenders once again and shed the rebuild in exchange for greener pastures.
This off-season the Blue Jays re-signed starter Robbie Ray and acquired/signed pitchers Steven Matz and Tyler Chatwood, all of whom will contend for a spot on the Blue Jays rotation this spring. Internally, the organization has Nate Pearson, Tanner Roark, Ross Stripling, T.J. Zeuch, Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch, and Julien Merryweather that will also be fighting for a spot on the rotation alongside Thornton. Throw in the possibility that the organization could sign another veteran starter like James Paxton or Taijuan Walker and/or trade for a pitcher like Sonny Gray or Luis Castillo, it appears that the Blue Jays rotation could become very competitive this upcoming spring. It should be noted that if the Blue Jays do add to their roster via free agency or trade, they will need to remove someone from the 40 man roster.
If I were a betting man, I would say Ryu and Ray will be in the rotation to begin the year with Pearson starting until he hits a pitch innings limit due to his elbow injury last year. That leaves roughly 2-3 spots for a host of options that the Blue Jays currently have. Roark, Stripling, Matz, and Chatwood all have more MLB experience than Thornton but all of these pitchers didn’t exactly have great seasons last year (one could argue that COVID played a big impact, but the fact is that they didn’t have great statistical seasons). Include that there are a ton of internal options vying for the same opportunity, the rotation behind Ryu is yet to be determined and nothing is really guaranteed at this point in the game.
If Thornton was to not make the rotation out of spring training, he could be used in the bullpen but could also be sent down to AAA and continue to be stretched out as a starter, at the ready if any Blue Jays starter gets hurt or struggles at the MLB level. Having Thornton continue to be a starter would be ideal to have more depth in the farm system but a bullpen role could bode well given he just underwent surgery on his elbow and shorter outings could keep him healthier in the long run. The right-hander also has three minor league options available, which the Blue Jays could utilize by having him begin the season in AAA and have him spot start or fill in as necessary without having to pass him or another player through the waiver wire. Scott Mitchell from TSN projects Thornton to be the 8th in line for a rotation spot, with the pitcher more likely finding himself in the bullpen rather than in the rotation this year.
Spring training will be a telling time for many of the Blue Jays young pitchers this year as a few rotation spots appear to be up for grabs with a strong host of competitors looking for a spot in the rotation. A strong spring could bode well for Thornton but a few rough spring outings could see the right-hander transition into a new role or back down to AAA for 2021 and beyond.