It has been reported that agents of Philadelphia subterfuge are in Chicago. According to the rumor, Phillies scouts are examining two White Sox relievers, J.J. Putz and Bobby Jenks.
It’s good to see that the Phillies, having witnessed the rash of injuries to their late-inning relievers (Lidge, Romero, Madson) in recent months (and the maddening inconsistency of Danys Baez and David Herndon) are taking steps to rectify the situation. I’d even say that the White Sox, now seven games under .500 after being expected to contend for the division title, are in a position to cut payroll and throw in the towel on the season. The Sox also have a surfeit of effective relief pitching. As such, they’d be a perfect trading partner to the Phillies, a team trying to find a solution to its most dangerous weakness.
But Jenks and Putz aren’t the White Sox relievers the Phillies ought to be looking at.
Because he’s not a closer and he pitches in a different league and a different time zone, I’d wager that many of you have never heard of Matt Thornton. But if he’s not the best reliever in the game, he’s in the conversation.
Thornton is a 6-foot-6, 34-year-old lefty who finished last year second among relief pitchers in WAR, behind only Jonathan Broxton. This season, he’s struck out 26 batters and issued only two unintentional walks in 17 IP. Over the past three seasons, batters swing and miss at his pitches in the strike zone almost 20% more often than the average pitcher. He throws hard (his fastball averages about 96 mph), gets ground balls, misses bats, and doesn’t walk batters. Worried about him being a lefty-only guy? His career platoon splits are negligible. There is literally nothing more you could ask of a reliever than what Thornton has delivered to the White Sox this season.
Are Putz and Jenks serviceable relievers? Certainly. Putz is having a good season, and has had even better in recent years (last year’s meltdown with the Mets notwithstanding). Jenks is the co-owner of the record for most consecutive batters retired, has a blistering fastball, and has been generally solid since taking over the closer’s role for Chicago in 2005. But both are flawed. Putz did melt down last year, and Jenks, in addition to always having had control problems, has seen his strikeouts drop and his home runs go up.
Are Putz and Jenks as good as anything the Phillies have? Sure. But Thornton’s better than either. The Phillies have traded for quality pitching often and wisely over the past three seasons, but they have paid dearly for Lidge, Blanton, Lee, and Halladay in both money and in young talent. If they trade for some combination of Jenks, Putz, and Thornton, they will pay dearly again from an increasingly thin pool of bargaining chips. So if you’re going to give up what few prospects you have left, it makes sense to get the best. And the best is Matt Thornton.