Teams often go through the motions of pretending competition exists. This spring, the White Sox have two such charades: a competition between Brent Morel and Mark Teahen for starting third baseman and a competition between four relievers for who will be the closer.
The White Sox have all but stopped pretending the former exists, after Teahen confirmed yet again his total incapability of playing defense. Many will take this contract extension as the signal that the latter doesn't exist, either. After all, the thinking is that one wouldn't commit that annual salary to a reliever unless the intent is that he fulfill the figurehead position in the bullpen and accumulate the saves. Nevermind that Scott Linebrink will be taking the same annual fee to not close for not the White Sox.
The truth, of course, is that Thornton always was going to be the closer. But, whether he would be closing or not, the White Sox probably felt a deal needed to be made. Perhaps racking up 40 saves for a contending team would have driven his price up on the 2012 free agent market. But while the save continues to be a key driver in arbitration salaries, its role in free agency appears to be on the decline. And, in any event, set up men have cashed in at rates similar to or in excess of $5.5 million.
Obviously, the key question is whether Thornton will be worth the salary going forward, whatever role he happens to fill. Thornton has been the best non-Mariano Rivera reliever in baseball for the last three years. Pick any measure you like - FIP, ERA, K/BB, WHIP, holds - and it's just about impossible to argue that Thornton wouldn't have been worth this salary in past seasons.
In 2011, Thornton will be finishing out what turned out to be one of the team friendliest contracts in recent memory. The day prior to the start of the 2007 season, the White Sox signed Thornton to a 3 year, $3.25 million contract with team options for 2010 and 2011. His annual salaries have been: 07:$0.55M, 08:$0.875M, 09:$1.325M, 10:$2.25M, 11:$3M. So he's been paid $5 million so far and, according to fWAR, been worth $33M. As the kids on Wall Street say, that's a sexy ROI.
As is usual with any contract - let alone one for a pitcher who will be 35 when it begins - the key is health. And there have been some troubling indicators there, with elbow/forearm problems bothering him at a few points during this past season and eventually resulting in a DL trip in August.
Since Thornton throws his fastball about 90% of the time, all of his value is tied to that pitch. And there has been no visible decline there. If anything, the pitch has gotten better. His velocity has consistently sat in the 95-96 MPH range the past three seasons. And, when he returned from injury in September, his stuff was not diminished.
Comparable pitchers are hard to find because there aren't many left-handers who throw as hard as Thornton does. Of contemporaries, the White Sox probably would like a career arc like that of the recently retired Billy Wagner. Wagner maintained his mid-90s fastball, and his effectiveness, all the way through his final season at age 40.
Whether or not Thornton ends up serving as the closer for this contract is pretty much irrelevant to whether he's worth the contract (though some will argue that his value will actually decline because he'll see less important game situations as a strict 9th inning man). He's already shown that a reliever's value is in getting hitters out in high leverage situations, whenever they happen to occur. And his ability to do that is unquestioned. We can discuss the usual caveats to any long-term commitment to a player but there isn't much to quibble with here from the outsider's perspective. Depending upon salary inflation, he'll be paid to produce about 1-1.5 WAR. He's been consistently and comfortably above that range in the past three seasons so he's got room to decline and still be worth the money, whether it's closer money or set-up man money.