Tyler Thornburg's true role with Brewers yet to be determined
He arrived in Milwaukee quietly, while the team was still on All-Star break. There was no clarion call from Bernie's chalet for the latest Brewers phenom, no rally cry on talk radio.
Instead Tyler Thornburg came up from Nashville with about as much pomp and circumstance as agate type. The soft-spoken 23-year-old wouldn't have it another way. The 6-foot, 190-pound Texan was slated to be just another arm in the bullpen for manager Ron Roenicke, part of a group that if it's not noticed is doing its job.
The rookie wouldn't be asked to close, or set up, rather called upon for an inning or two and trade off long relief appearances with Livan Hernandez.
"Depending what happens with us and where we go we know can slide him in and be a starter," Roenicke added.
Thornburg's eventual role depends on Shaun Marcum's return from an elbow issue, and whether or not Zack Greinke and Randy Wolf finish the year with the team. That depends on whether or not the Brewers can quickly climb out of an x-game hole in the division.
Or, it may depend on Greinke's mood and health. It was announced today Thornburg will take Greinke's scheduled start Wednesday against St. Louis, and perhaps more down the line.
It is unclear if Wednesday is just a spot start, or a permanent promotion. Chances are, however, he will not start every fifth day.
The call-up and bullpen assignment surprised Thornburg, who was in the process of finding an apartment in Nashville, but he acknowledged this new role will help keep him viable the rest of 2012. He was called up with 85 1/3 innings under his belt, after throwing 136 2/3 last year and 101 1/3 in 2010.
"Hopefully I can keep my innings down by doing this and then if a scenario comes up where I do start I won't be going over an innings limit or anything," he admitted.
Bringing up strong starting arms and putting them in major league bullpens has become more common lately, notably in Tampa Bay with David Price (2008) and Matt Moore (2011), Chicago with Chris Sale (2010-11), St. Louis and Adam Wainwright (2005-06) and Texas with Neftali Feliz (2009-11).
While the move allows a youngster time to adjust to major league life and have him work under the eye of the major league pitching coach and front office, the monitoring of innings seems to be the most important aspect of the move.
"Do you want him to have the full season and what kind of number of innings do you want?" Roenicke said. "This way you're limiting a starter's innings."
Roenicke brought Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw, and how he is not the same pitcher as he was in his Cy Young season of 2011 where is inning total jumped to 233 1/3 after 204 1/3 in 2010 and 171 in 2009. He noted how the Washington Nationals have a real dilemma on their hands with what to do with Stephen Strasburg, who is fresh off Tommy John surgery.
"I understand it," Roenicke said of the caution teams have with mounting inning totals. "I understand when you're coming out of college and you put this bulk on a pitcher and then you bring him back the next year and you do the same thing, I don't know. I don't know what kind of stress that puts on a guy."
Thornburg's new teammates however, aren't as concerned with innings totals. The only stress that matters to them is in the late innings when he's handed the ball.
"Here you just go out here and perform," said Martin Maldonado, who caught Thornburg's June 19 start against Toronto. "You'll have meetings and that stuff but he'll go out there and learn because relieving is way different than starting. You come in late in the games with the game on the line. We have a good group of guys over here, like K-Rod (Francisco Rodriguez) and Ax (John Axford), Livan Hernandez – those guys can help him learn the right way, what pitch to throw in the right situation. That's the way it is.
"I tell you one thing – he was throwing 94 as a starter and he might be throwing 98 as a reliever. He's got good stuff. That's the only reason he's here. If you don't have good stuff, they're not going to call you up. They know what he can do. He just has to go out there and perform. That's all he has to do. It's the same game, but a different level."
Thornburg knows this, and says he took quite a few lessons away from the spot start against the Blue Jays in which he started strong, but faltered late by giving up three consecutive home runs.
"You take the good and bad," he said. "You take the good that you know you can pitch to these guys and you can also take the bad, which, you can't make bad pitches. There's lot of things. The experience was great. It makes me a lot more comfortable coming up here this time. I'm going to be in a different role, but I'm looking forward to it."
How long he remains in that role is to be determined.
Such is the line organizations walk when it hangs on the precipice. A losing streak begins the deconstruction of the roster, pushing Thornburg back into the rotation. A winning stretch keeps him in the bullpen, but brings his appearances deeper into the spotlight.
These are the concerns of general manager Doug Melvin and Roenicke. The concerns of his teammates are different. What they share is a desire to see Thornburg pitch well. In that situation, everybody wins.
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