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dan shaughnessy

Red Sox’ timing was off in this whole Chris Sale saga

Ace lefthander Chris Sale needs Tommy John surgery on his valuable left arm.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Red Sox’ handling of the Chris Sale elbow situation could hardly have turned out worse.

Boston’s ace lefty needs Tommy John surgery. It appeared to some of us that he needed surgery last summer when he was shut down with elbow pain. But the Red Sox and Dr. James Andrews waited — a decision that appeared to be based on hope more than reality after the Sox signed Sale to a whopping contract extension before the 2019 season.

When Sale again felt pain at the beginning of this month, the Sox waited again after Andrews and at least two other experts viewed Sale’s MRI.


Last week — after the world had changed — the Red Sox finally said it was time for Sale to have the procedure, which requires at least 14-15 months for recovery.

Now there might be a new reason to wait. Unless the surgery was done over the weekend (the Sox are not saying), they may need to wait because of the global medical crisis. This means Sale could wind up losing all of 2020 and 2021 — costing the Red Sox $60 million for zero return in the first two years of Sale’s new contract.

Can Chris Sale ever regain his old form?Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Sale’s left arm is of great importance to the Red Sox and their fans, but it’s more than bad optics to perform elective surgery on a $145 million major league pitcher at a time when governors of many states are pleading for medical masks and gowns.

Reached on Sunday, Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy would not comment on whether Sale had already undergone the procedure or whether it had been scheduled. The Red Sox public relations department also had no comment.


Here’s the depressing timeline:


▪ Former Red Sox baseball boss Dave Dombrowski acquired Sale in exchange for four minor leaguers before the season. Sale went 17-8 with a whopping 308 strikeouts in his first season in Boston, but faded late in the season. He pitched 214⅓ regular-season innings.


▪ Sale pitched only 17 regular-season innings after July 27 because of shoulder inflammation. He managed to give manager Alex Cora 15⅔ innings in the postseason, including the World Series clincher in Los Angeles when he struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth in relief. Sale had one year remaining on his old contract.

Chris Sale was vital in helping the Red Sox win it all in 2018.Ezra Shaw


▪ In February, Sox owner John Henry (who also owns the Globe) said that Sale was in good health and that the club was eager to extend the lefty’s contract. On March 23, Sale and the Red Sox agreed to a five-year, $145 million extension, commencing with the 2020 season.

The deal represented a departure from ownership’s philosophy that formerly held that signing pitchers to big contracts as they were about to turn 30 was bad business (paging Jon Lester). Sale turned 30 one week after his new deal was announced.

▪ After making only two spring training starts, Sale went 0-5 with a 6.30 ERA in March/April. His velocity was significantly diminished.


▪ On Aug. 14, Sale was shut down for the season after visiting Dr. Andrews, the godfather of Tommy John surgery. Sale finished 6-11 with a career-worst 4.40 ERA in only 147⅓ innings.

▪ On Sept. 9, 2019, Dombrowski was fired in the midnight hour after a nationally televised Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway Park.

▪ On Sept. 23, two weeks after Dombrowski was fired, Henry met with the Boston media and said that ownership had known “for more than a year” that the team would have to cut payroll to get under the competitive balance tax before the start of the 2020 season.


▪ Sale had pneumonia when he arrived at spring training. On Feb. 17, at a press conference in the wake of the Mookie Betts trade, Henry, Sox chairman Tom Werner, and Kennedy were asked why the Sox would extend Sale in the spring of 2019 if they had known for a year they were going to have to get below the CBT. Henry passed on the question while Werner said, "We’ve also said that [resetting] was a goal, not a mandate.''

▪ On March 1, Sale experienced pain in his left elbow after throwing 15 pitches of live batting practice. He was sent for an MRI that was read by Sox doctors, then sent to Andrews and surgeon Neal ElAttrache. The doctors called it a flexor strain and recommended Sale rest for two weeks, then try again.


▪ Sale resumed throwing on March 13, the day after Major League Baseball suspended spring training because of the coronavirus pandemic. When Sale threw on March 17, he was forced to stop because of pain.

Chris Sale struggled with health issues this spring before shutting it down.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

▪ On March 19, the Red Sox announced that Sale would need Tommy John surgery. Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said he expected the surgery to take place soon. Asked about elective surgery during a pandemic, Bloom said, "Obviously something we’re mindful of, No. 1, the difficulty generally surrounding elective surgeries with what our country is going through.

"We’re going to make sure that we do it in a way that doesn’t place any undue burden on everybody who is suffering as a result of the outbreak.''

It’s been one unfortunate decision after another for the Red Sox in this case. They gave Sale the money when they could have waited. Then they waited when it turns out Sale was going to need the surgery after all. Now they may have to wait longer, because this is simply not the time for any elective surgery.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.