Examining the Chris Sale Injury and its Impact on the Future of the Boston Red Sox

It was announced on Monday night that the Boston Red Sox would be shutting down their ace, Chris Sale, for the remainder of the 2019 season due to elbow inflammation. The news broke after Sale concluded a meeting with Dr. James Andrews to determine whether Tommy John surgery was necessary. Luckily for Sale and the Red Sox, it was determined that no surgery was required, but Sale will miss the remainder of the 2019 season after receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection (PRP) and being subsequently shut down for the next six weeks.

Sale’s teammates, who are six games back of an American League Wild Card seeding, now face a tougher row to hoe, in terms of making the playoffs. Now the team is staring down a crowded and competitive road to a playoff spot that they must traverse without their best pitcher. Sale’s 2019 campaign has been lackluster by his standards, holding a 6-11 record with a 4.40 ERA in 25 games started, but there’s no denying that he’s still Boston’s best starting pitcher, in terms of pure talent.

The Red Sox already had an extremely slim chance of making the playoffs, but Sale’s departure may well be the final nail in the coffin. Despite the MVP-caliber seasons put forth by Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts, the Red Sox, as a whole, have vastly underperformed this season and now find themselves in a hole too deep to dig out of.

However, Sale’s injury doesn’t just impact the 2019 Boston Red Sox. The franchise has several key decisions to make this coming offseason, and the ominous dark cloud of uncertainty surrounding the health of their ace will play a major role in how those decisions are made.

The headline may read, “Chris Sale does not need Tommy John Surgery” but the honest headline is, “Chris Sale does not need Tommy John Surgery… At the moment.” It’s clear that something is wrong with his elbow, which is not surprising given his thin frame, his awkward delivery, and the fact that he throws 95-100 mph consistently. Anyone who watches Sale pitch can tell that what he does, as incredible as it is to see, is unnatural and unhealthy for his elbow. The human elbow isn’t meant to slingshot a baseball at 97 mph repeatedly upwards of 100 times every five days.

This situation isn’t without precedent, as other pitchers such as New York Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka and Sale’s own teammate, David Price, have been able to avoid Tommy John surgery, despite their own elbow issues. That said, all three of these pitchers’ elbows can be described, albeit in a rather crass way, as “ticking time bombs”. Eventually, the torque and the strain that these pitchers put on their elbows will likely catch up to them. This is an especially foreboding thought for the Red Sox given the fact that Sale is locked into an extremely lucrative contract through the 2025 season.

Here’s how Sale’s contract pans out over the next five years:

2020 – $30,000,000

2021 – $30,000,000

2022 – $30,000,000

2023 – $27,500,000

2024 – $27,500,000

2025 – $20,000,000

The amount of money tied up with Sale, as well as the length of the contract, makes for a worrisome scenario for the Red Sox should his elbow continue to deteriorate.

Unfortunately, the injury doesn’t just impact Sale himself, it impacts the rest of the franchise, as the offseason looms around the corner. With no promising pitching prospects on the horizon and a big-league rotation potentially being anchored by Price, who has elbow problems of his own, the Red Sox find themselves in need of pitching help. The team will also likely be losing Rick Porcello to free agency, which will further take away from their pitching depth.

The Red Sox could attempt to hit the free-agent market, with big names such as Gerrit Cole and Madison Bumgarner becoming available, but they might be financially limited in that regard. While Pablo Sandoval‘s $18 million salary will finally be coming off the books, they will essentially be replacing that with the salaries of Bogaerts and Sale, since both of their contract extensions kick in next season. Sale’s salary goes up by $15 million, while Bogaerts’ salary goes up by $8 million.

On top of that, the Red Sox are due for another round of arbitration with Mookie Betts, who will likely earn himself another pay raise, which will put him somewhere around the $25-3o million range for the 2020 season. Thus, despite Sandoval and Porcello coming off their payroll, the Red Sox will not actually save any money for 2020.

This is where Boston’s situation becomes a lot more dire because it may force their hand when it comes to trading off key pieces of their roster to solve their lack of starting pitching depth.

Betts would be the first name that comes to mind as a trade asset, given his unwillingness to sign an extension to this point, as well as the return he may fetch. Trading away the 2018 AL MVP reeks of desperation, but that’s the situation that the Red Sox have put themselves in.

Sure, the Red Sox could still make that trade and obtain an attractive package of prospects, or, at the very least, cost-controlled major-league players, but there would be fallout from that too. Should Betts be traded away, would J.D. Martinez opt back into the remaining three years of his contract? Doubtful, since Martinez has had another strong season and could likely earn just as much money somewhere else in free agency.

Plus, Martinez is entering his mid-thirties and wants to play for winning teams. While the Red Sox still have a strong core of players such as Bogaerts, Devers, and Andrew Benintendi, trading away someone like Betts is more of a rebuilding move than a winning move.

Nobody forced Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox to sign Sale to a massive contract extension in spring training, so why did they? Why not wait until later in the season to see how Sale’s health holds up? Did John Henry pressure Dombrowski into signing Sale to an extension due to Henry’s admitted regret over losing Jon Lester back in 2014? If so, that’s a horrible rationale for handing out a long-term contract to a pitcher who, albeit a tremendous talent, has a history of breaking down in the second half of the season.

The Boston Red Sox have a lot of work to do this coming offseason, and it’s not hyperbole to say that Chris Sale’s injury may have altered the outlook of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

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