TAMPA — The risk with Chris Sale was always that his unconventional mechanics and fierce competitiveness would lead to a serious elbow injury. But the Red Sox went all in, trading for the ace lefthander three years ago, then signing him to a lucrative contract extension after he helped deliver a World Series title in 2018.
Now what they have always feared would happen is a distinct possibility. Sale felt pain in his elbow after throwing 15 pitches to teammates Sunday, had an MRI the next day, and is waiting for Dr. James Andrews to determine whether Tommy John surgery is needed.
“I’m alive,” Sale said with a shrug and a wry smile as he left the Red Sox clubhouse in Fort Myers Tuesday.
Team doctors have read the MRI and given their diagnosis. But Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom held back on revealing Sale’s condition until Andrews has his say. That should be by Wednesday morning.
“We’re waiting for a more complete picture,” Bloom told reporters after meeting with manager Ron Roenicke, assistant general manager Eddie Romero, pitching coach Dave Bush, and media relations director Kevin Gregg on the field before the Red Sox played the Yankees.
“Obviously there’s some concern. Knowing how his 2019 went and knowing how important he is to us, there is some concern. But until we have all the information, we don’t want to start speculating unnecessarily.”
Sale went on the injured list last Aug. 14 with what the team said was inflammation in his elbow. After examining Sale, Andrews administered a PRP injection and shut him down from throwing for the rest of the season.
Sale was 6-11 with a career-worst 4.40 earned run average last season. More troubling was that that his average fastball velocity dropped 1.82 m.p.h. from the previous season.
After a long break, Sale threw off the mound several times last month before missing approximately 10 days with mild pneumonia. After a careful buildup, he finally faced hitters Sunday and was smiling afterward. But the pain returned.
“Any time something like this happens, it’s going to make you concerned,” Bloom said. “We also know in the course of building up, when you do hit these milestones, sometimes you can get sore. He hasn’t faced hitters in a long time.
“I think to speculate too much would be irresponsible. Hopefully it is just a bump in the road.”
Tommy John surgery would put Sale out for at least this season and possibly some of 2021. The five-year, $145 million extension he agreed to a year ago starts this season.
“It’s a big downer for us,” catcher Christian Vazquez said. “He’s the best pitcher we have. It’s sad.”
In 2017, former Sox lefthander David Price seemed headed for elbow surgery in spring training but returned that May and has pitched well since.
That was the hope lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez was clinging to with Sale.
“We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll just wait and see the results of the MRI.”
Sale is 35-23 with a 3.08 ERA in three seasons for the Sox. The seven-time All-Star has been one of the best pitchers of his generation, a driven competitor with a blazing fastball and a sharp slider.
“At a minimum, even if this is fairly benign, we know this is going to set him back to some degree," Bloom said. “How long? Again, I don’t know yet.”
Roenicke was hesitant to answer questions when he met with reporters and spoke in generalities.
“[Sale] was doing really well,” he said. “He was still good and the bullpens were good. It’s always concerning when you have some history there.”
For the Red Sox, it was the latest in what has been a series of setbacks.
Alex Cora was relieved as manager in January after Major League Baseball determined that he was a central figure in the Houston Astros cheating scandal while he was their bench coach in 2017.
The Sox then traded perennial All-Star Mookie Betts and Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three prospects. Outfielder Alex Verdugo, a centerpiece of the deal, has been sidelined throughout spring training with a stress fracture in his back.
The Sox also are being investigated after allegations were made that they improperly stole signs during the 2018 season.
“It’s fair to say there have been a few more challenges than I thought when I first met most of you guys four or so months ago,” Bloom said. “But this is baseball; you know to expect the unexpected.
“You know there’s going to be some things sprung on you that you’re going to have to roll with. That’s part of our job, to tackle those challenges.”