The White Sox finally found a good distraction from their annual March malaise.
Off to their typical slow start on the field, the team once again had to resort to off-the-field news to divert attention from their poor record. But with no current Twitter controversies to speak of (Charlie Sheen is the center of all attention there), and no ex-Sox to spat with, the team manned up and decided to make this distraction a positive one, signing dependable pitcher Matt Thornton to a welcome two-year, $11 million contract extension with a club option for a third year.
Without much doubt, this is a very good move. Thornton finished 2010 with a 5-4 record, 8 saves, a 2.67 ERA and 1.01 WHIP that don't tell the whole story. Maintaining a mid-90s fastball, Thornton led AL relievers with both a 12.02 K/9 and 81 strikeouts while still walking only 20 in 60.2 innings. Not that he'll get a concourse statue for it, but Thornton is also the all-time Sox leader in holds, with 100.
JJ at White Sox Examiner points out that, over the last three seasons, Thornton has accumulated the highest WAR for all relievers outside of Mariano Rivera. At age 42, Rivera will make $15 million next year. Thornton will make $5.5. I'll take number two in this instance, thank you.
The possibility exists that Thornton, who will be 38 himself before this contract ends, could become much less effective as he leaves the traditional prime years. And injuries are always a risk. But that slight downside is surely worth the gamble for a pitcher as reliable and consistent as Thornton, especially with middle relievers recently commanding multi-year, big-money deals in free agency. Thornton could have held out and parlayed another solid season into a Joaquin Benoit-style free agent deal. But he felt comfortable and happy with the Sox, so he thankfully put to bed any contract year talk.
Guaranteeing his paycheck for two more seasons, the Sox are now free to utilize Thornton in any role they see fit in the 'pen without affecting his open market"value"- a good thing considering the damage contract-year jockeying has done to Sox players in the past. And while there is a good chance Thornton does in fact become the closer this year (I still like Chris Sale for that role), this is a good deal even if Thornton stays in the 8th inning set up role. Larry at South Side Sox mentions that the deal may well be better if Thornton remains a set up guy, because the 9th inning often features lower leverage work anyway.
In fact, while this contract could be perceived as the Sox saying "Here's the money, be our closer," I don't see it that way. It could just as easily be "You're getting paid now either way, so don't worry about being the closer." Even if Thornton winds up with zero saves this season, his value to the Sox is immense and his contract, without the drama of in-season uncertainty, reflects that. That's fantastic, because his value shouldn't be tied to a stat as superficial as saves anyway.
The bottom line is that there isn't much room for distension. If Easy Heat maintains his velocity and avoids injury, this a great deal for the Sox. For a team that has lavished big money on mediocre non-closer relief pitchers in the past (Scott Linebrink, Octavio Dotel, Jesse Crain, Will Ohman), it feels good to finally get one right.
Oh, and in on-the-field news, the sun rose in the east again Sunday, so the Sox lost. Their spring record is now (a meaningless) 1-6. The good news from the box score? Tyler Flowers and Jordan Danks went a combined six at bats without a strikeout.