Mazz: Count on Chris Sale? Instead, let’s count 5 reasons the Red Sox can’t
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – AUGUST 20: Starting Pitcher Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox reacts at the top of the second inning against the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park on August 20, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
In this season alone, he has had a stress fracture in his ribcage while throwing, suffered a setback in his rehabilitation as the result of “a small personal medical issue,” broken a finger after being hit by a line drive and, now, broken his right wrist as the result of (ahem) a biking accident. Certainly, we can debate how much of this we believe. But let’s instead focus on what we should all agree on.
If Red Sox officials are counting on Chris Sale to return to form in 2023, Sale’s finger, wrist and arm aren’t the only organizational body parts that need to be examined.
“He should be full go next spring, and we obviously need to think through what that means as far as planning out a full season with him not having carried out much of a workload the last few years,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said yesterday, responding to a question by Boston Globe columnist Chris Gasper. “But other than that, there is no reason not to expect him to be back and be the Chris Sale that we know.”
In Bloom’s defense, there are no promises about how the Red Sox will (or will not) build their 2023 pitching staff, a construction project that makes The Big Dig look line an ant farm. But let’s get real. The 2022 Red Sox have plummeted in the standings with the speed of an obese skydiver, and their first order of business for 2023 should be to rebuild the pitching staff with quality arms.
Here is why Sale can’t – and shouldn’t – be regarded as one of them:
1. He’ll be 34 next spring
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – AUGUST 03: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox sits in the dugout in the second inning as his team bats against the New York Yankees during game one of a double header at Yankee Stadium on August 03, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Think of it in these terms: if Sale were on the open market this winter, would the Red Sox sign him to a two-year contract for $55 million – with a potential vesting option for another $20 million in 2025? Hell. No. And the reason? Because that’s a lot of money for a 34-year-old who comes with a lot of risk. (The Sox have long had an aversion to 20-something pitchers – and now they’re going to convince Sale will be fine?) Obviously, Bloom had nothing to do with signing Sale to that contract in the first place. But penalizing the rest of the roster doesn’t make much sense given some of the avenues the Red Sox will have to improve their team, especially when some of the Sox’ other projected starters (James Paxton, Brayan Bello?) come with questions of health and/or experience.
2. The team has payroll flexibility
HOUSTON, TEXAS – OCTOBER 22: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox observes the playing of the national anthem prior to Game Six of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on October 22, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Back in the winter of 1997-98, the Red Sox examined different ways to rebuild their pitching staff – exploring options at both the front end (starters) and the back (bullpen). They settled on Pedro Martinez via trade, then signed him to a lucrative contract extension. Nobody is expecting that kind of blockbuster this time around, but the Sox can’t keep going with low-cost options like they did this season, when the acquired “broken” pitchers and tried to fix them. Salaries coming off the payroll include J.D. Martinez (a luxury tax salary of $22 million), Xander Bogaerts ($20 million), Nathan Eovaldi ($17 million), David Price ($16 million), Jackie Bradley ($12 million), Enrique Hernandez ($8 million), Michael Wacha ($7 million), Rich Hill ($5 million) and others. That’s $107 million without even trying. Obviously, the Sox will reinvest some of that money in existing players and/or re-signings. But they need real pitchers with real arms.
3. Sale wasn’t durable in the first place
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JULY 17: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox leaves the field with a dislocated pinky finger after getting hit by a line drive from Aaron Hicks of the New York Yankees in the first inning at Yankee Stadium on July 17, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Some injuries are avoidable and others (like the broken finger pictured above) are not. But there is also this: Sale has never really been all that durable in the first place. His last full season came in 2017, when he went 4-4 with a 4.09 ERA in his last 11 starts. In 10 career postseason appearances (seven starts), he is 1-3 with a 6.35 ERA. Sale’s ceiling may (or may not) still be high, but there is no evidence at all to suggest the 2023 Red Sox can really on him to be a workhorse. His career monthly ERAs remains highest in August and September (let alone October) and that was true when he was younger and healthier. The Sox started to account for that back in 2018 – five years ago – and they can’t just ignore it now.
4. The rest of their projected staff is equally as blurry
ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA – JULY 12: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on July 12, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
If you ever had high hopes for James Paxton, that’s fine. But know this: he, too, will be 34 soon and has never pitched more than 160.1 innings in any season. Paxton’s option at the end of the year is for TWO seasons, not one, at $13 million per. (If the Sox decline, he has the option to return on a one-year deal for $4 million, which seems unlikely.) Beyond that, Brayan Bello has talent, but asking him to carry a staff feels like a stretch. The Sox tried Garrett Whitlock as a starter this year and he broke down – and they may need him in the bullpen, anyway. Nick Pivetta is one of just 55 pitchers over the last two seasons to have thrown at least 25 0 innings – and there is value in that – but he will be 30 in February and is an aggregate 17-16 with a 4.52 ERA (49th among those 55 pitchers), which makes him suited for the middle or back end of the rotation. Kutter Crawford has had a nice year, but he’ll be 27 next spring and has only once pitched more than 94.2 innings in any season – and that was four years ago (143.2 in 2018).
Get the picture? The Sox don’t have a single pitcher who projects as both talented and durable. Not one.
5. Chaim Bloom and the Sox can’t afford another bad year
CLEVELAND, OHIO – AUGUST 13: Starting pitcher Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox celebrates after throwing his 2,000th career strike out to end the third inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on August 13, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
While we shouldn’t forget that the Red Sox reached Game 6 of the American League Championship Series last year, let’s all agree that the 2021 season now looks like a wild aberration. Since the start of the 2019 season, the Red Sox are 254-241, a .514 winning percentage that ranks a mediocre 14th in the majors, behind organizations like the White Sox, Twins, A’s and Indians – and that INCLUDES the trip to the ALCS. If they finish last this year, it will mark their fifth last-place finish of the John Henry ownership era, a total that obviously exceeds their four championships. Sox attendance this year projects to be its lowest in 20 years – and a rotation headed by Chris Sale won’t be enough to bring people back.