Blue Jays: Should Trent Thornton be moved to the starting rotation?

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MAY 04: Trent Thornton #57 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the fifth inning at RingCentral Coliseum on May 04, 2021 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MAY 04: Trent Thornton #57 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the fifth inning at RingCentral Coliseum on May 04, 2021 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Blue Jays entered the 2021 season with a few questions surrounding their starting rotation, mostly revolving around who will make up the back end of the rotation behind Hyun Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, and Steven Matz.

Before the season began, most thought that Nate Pearson would be contending for a spot, mostly being on an innings limit given his recent slew of injuries and lack of playing time in the minor leagues. He wouldn’t be available for Opening Day as he was placed on the injured list. Another option in the rotation was Tanner Roark, albeit to the dismay of Blue Jays fans given his poor performance last season. He would struggle again to begin the year, eventually being moved to the bullpen before being designated for assignment and released. Other potential options at the back end of the rotation include Anthony Kay, Jacob Waguespack, Tom Hatch, Ross Stripling, Trent Thornton, and T.J. Zeuch, with Stripling being used as a starter the most out of this group so far this season.

Moved to the bullpen this year, Trent Thornton was drafted by the Houston Astros in the fifth round back in 2015, later acquired by the Blue Jays in exchange for infielder Aledmys Diaz during the 2019 off-season. So far this year, Thornton has found himself being used to eat up multiple innings while also having two spot starts under his belt, pitching well in his new role.

While he is being used as a relief pitcher this season, Thornton is no stranger to being a starter in the major leagues. In 2019, the rookie pitcher led the Blue Jays in games started (29), innings pitched (154.1), and strikeouts (149) while pitching to a 4.84 ERA. While his numbers weren’t outstanding by any means, in a year that saw veteran pitchers like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez be traded during the season, Thornton was the workhorse the team needed and was able to stay healthy all year. That health would not follow him into 2020 though, as he only pitched in three games and struggled to an 11.12 ERA, eventually missing the bulk of the season after undergoing elbow surgery.

Fast forward to this season and Thornton is dealing in his new role, finding himself with 12 appearances (two starts), and currently owns a 3.15 ERA with 18 strikeouts, eight walks, and a 1.25 WHIP. He has stayed off the injured list so far this season and has been a go-to pitcher for manager Charlie Montoyo so far in April and May.

With the only outliers being two rough outings to begin the year and a lack of command shown last night, Thornton has been pretty impressive so far this season. With his experience in the rotation and a solid start to the year, why haven’t the Blue Jays considered using him in the rotation given the various injuries and poor performances from other pitchers?

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One reason he is most likely in the bullpen is that he is one of the stalwarts in the group right now, a dependable arm that is one of the main reasons the Blue Jays relief corps posts a 2.87 ERA (before Friday’s game), third-best in the major leagues at the time. Montoyo can use him for multiple innings, a blessing considering the Jays starters are struggling to pitch deep into games and has been used in a variety of scenarios and pressure situations.

Another reason Thornton is most likely staying in the bullpen right now is that he isn’t really stretched out to be a starter compared to other internal options. Anthony Kay didn’t make the Opening Day roster and was kept stretched out as a starter at the alternate site/taxi squad while Ross Stripling has been used in the rotation all season, stretched out for the role since Spring Training when Pearson went down with his injury. While Thornton has been used in the rotation before 2021, he may not be fully tuned up to take on a starting role, especially since his longest outing this season is only 2.2 innings. Throwing him back into the rotation could see him go down with an injury if he’s asked to pitch more innings compared to what he has been pitching in the bullpen. If a spot does open up shortly, the Blue Jays could also choose to promote a prospect like Alek Manoah or Nick Allgeyer and keep Thornton in the bullpen, especially since another reliever in Ryan Borucki just got transferred to the IL yesterday.

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Considering he does have the experience and has been pitching well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Thornton possibly being given a rotation opportunity if Anthony Kay (who took over Nate Pearson’s spot in the rotation) struggles in his outing today, possibly seeing a flip in roles between both pitchers before a prospect like Manoah is brought to the major leagues.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if the Jays decide to keep Thornton as a reliever given other internal prospects are getting close to making the jump to the highest level, which would see the right-hander get pushed down the rotation potential depth charts. It all depends on how fast the Blue Jays are willing to pull the trigger on bringing up Manoah (or another prospect) to the big leagues, with that decision most likely impacting whether Thornton stays in the pen or gets a chance to start again this season.