Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale will undergo Tommy John surgery, as per a team announcement. Sale will be out of action for roughly the next 12-15 months, as per the usual recovery timeline, and will miss all of the 2020 season.
The news less than three weeks after Sale was diagnosed with a flexor strain, following some elbow soreness in his throwing elbow. Sale only resumed throwing yesterday, though it’s fair to assume that he experienced further discomfort that resulted in today’s decision.
The Red Sox press release didn’t include any actual date for Sale’s surgery, and Joel Sherman of the New York Post speculated that it could perhaps be some time before Sale actually goes under the knife, given how elective medical procedures are increasingly being canceled (both in the United States and all around the world) in order to give hospitals and doctors more time to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also worth wondering if the uncertainty surrounding how much (or any) of the 2020 season will be played could have contributed to Sale’s decision, as he perhaps figured that missing time now was preferable to missing time when games were firmly on the schedule. Regardless, Sale will now miss whatever exists of the 2020 campaign and also likely at least two or three months of the 2021 season.
Due to his relatively thin stature and his unique throwing motion, durability questions dogged Sale as far back as his days as a vaunted prospect coming out of Florida Gulf Coast University, to the point that he dropped to the White Sox with the 13th pick of the 2010 draft. Sale proved those criticisms wrong after almost a full decade as one of the game’s best starters, with a career 3.03 ERA, 11.1 K/9, and the best career K/BB rate (5.37) in baseball history, while also averaging 205 innings per season between 2012-17.
The Red Sox acquired Sale in a December 2016 blockbuster trade that saw budding superstar Yoan Moncada go to Chicago, though the hefty price tag was worth it from Boston’s perspective, given Sale’s strong results for the club and his role in helping the Red Sox win the 2018 World Series. That said, Sale seemed to wear down at the end of the 2017 season and was bothered by shoulder problems late in the 2018 campaign, which led the Sox to limit his innings down the stretch and during their postseason run.
Those injury concerns didn’t stop Boston from signing Sale to a five-year, $145MM extension almost exactly one year ago. That deal covered the 2020-24 seasons, meaning the Red Sox won’t see any return on that investment for at least the next 15 months. Warning signs already began to crop up last season, as Sale got off to a slow start and only somewhat looked like himself (a career-high 4.40 ERA, though advanced metrics painted a much more favorable picture of his 2019 performance) over 147 1/3 innings before being shut down in mid-August due to elbow inflammation. Treatment for that inflammation included a platelet-rich plasma injection in Sale’s elbow, and he was seemingly making good progress in his offseason workouts before a bout of pneumonia set him back a couple of weeks.
Given that so much of Boston’s offseason revolved around getting under the luxury tax threshold, the Sale extension now looms as a seriously questionable decision. If Sale hadn’t been extended and his $25.6MM average annual value wasn’t on the team’s books, the Red Sox wouldn’t have faced nearly the (self-imposed) crunch to reset their tax bill after two years of overages. This could have meant the Sox may have explored other, lower-level methods of getting under the $208MM threshold rather than the extreme measure of trading Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers.
With Sale now out of the picture entirely for 2020, Eduardo Rodriguez is now the ace of the Red Sox rotation following the lefty’s big 2019 performance. E-Rod leaves a staff that is severely lacking in sure things, as Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez, and Collin McHugh are all looking to rebound from either injury or inconsistency last season (McHugh could even still wind up in the bullpen). A long list of names were competing for the final two rotation jobs before Spring Training was halted, and manager Ron Roenicke hinted that the Sox would use an opener/bulk pitcher strategy for at least one of the two slots.