Slowly, intrigue is forming on the horizon.
With nearly one-third of the season complete, the Red Sox have created an air of possibility in their season. At the same time, their sideways journey through May – a 12-10 record for the month entering Wednesday, compared to marks of 18-6 for the Rays and 16-6 for the Yankees – has made clear that their path through the summer is fraught.
They are a good team. But they have evident deficiencies, and there are questions about the sustainability of what has been a consistently solid performance.
And so, the drips of information from Fort Myers about Chris Sale take on outsized significance. Though the updates can seem repetitive, they suggest progress and change. His throws on flat ground having advanced to work off a mound to doing so both regularly and with increasing intensity.
None of it suggests that Sale will be in the Red Sox rotation any time soon. But the direction of the arrow is clear. Does it still point to contributions this year?
“Oh, yeah,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “We believe that he’s going to contribute this year. And I know that he wants that, too.”
Yet the Red Sox also have resisted putting a timetable on that contribution. Their goal is not merely to get Sale back on the mound but to give him the best chance to perform at something close to the peak of his abilities.
Towards that end, any relatively minor setback – a stiff neck over the winter, then a sore back during spring training – has resulted in delays borne of caution. The Sox are not pushing for Sale’s earliest possible return so much as they’re focused on the safest one.
The team received a reminder of the merits of such an approach on Tuesday. Mets flamethrower Noah Syndergaard, who underwent Tommy John surgery four days prior to Sale last March, left his rehab start after one inning due to right elbow soreness.
As much as the recovery from Tommy John surgery is seen as routine, and despite a strong track record with the procedure, its is imperfect. Even now, about three of every 10 Tommy John recipients never return to the level they reached pre-surgery.
Of course, many do. Yankees righthander Luis Severino (whose Tommy John surgery took place last February) is now throwing simulated games, 15 months after his ulnar collateral ligament surgery. He seems to be nearing a minor league rehab assignment.
Sale is behind those two in his rehab progression — but unlike Syndergaard, he has not suffered a setback involving his arm.
“Every rehab is different. We have to be careful with the way we treat this guy because he’s very important,” said Cora . “We put those three guys together always: Syndergaard, Severino, and Sale. They’re different guys with different bodies. I think we’ve been doing a good job, obviously, taking care of him.”
Increasingly, rehab from Tommy John surgery for big-league starters – particularly those who throw hard – is taking at least 14 to 16 months. Sale still seems to have a chance at returning to the Red Sox within such a timetable.
There are several steps in front of the lefthander: Full bullpen sessions, then facing hitters in live batting practice, then simulated games, followed by a minor league rehab assignment.
Still, his buildup seems to be nearing something comparable to the time just before the start of spring training. With that in mind, one major league source recently suggested that a best-case scenario for Sale’s progression would be a late-July re-entry to the Red Sox rotation, roughly 16 months post-surgery.
Sale is not the only looming reinforcement. While the Sox are taking a deliberate approach with outfielder Jarren Duran – currently on hiatus from Triple-A Worcester to play for Team USA in an Olympic qualifying tournament. He’s put on a show through 18 games for the WooSox, hitting .278/.366/.625 with seven homers (two more than he hit over 132 minor league games in 2019).
The Sox are committed to getting him more seasoning in Triple-A rather than letting the league adjust to him and making him adjust back against a full variety of different pitch sequences. Still, it seems all but inevitable that Duran will make his debut this year (July or August seems realistic) with the chance that his arrival could help the team hit another gear.
“Back in the day, when we won 14 [division titles] in a row, it always seemed like we called up one of our guys late in the year to help with the pennant run,” said Atlanta manager Brian Snitker. “It’s the energy impact, especially if you get a player who can help you and do a lot for your team. … I think it’s good for your club when you can do that, when you have a guy like that to bring up.”
Already, in some corners of the Red Sox organization, excitement is coalescing about the potential for Sale and Duran to offer the Sox just such a mid-summer boost. Between their potential additions as well as the possibility of mid-year trades, there is a path towards meaningful late-season games.
Yet to stay on it, the current roster must forge its own way through the middle third of the schedule. There could be major reinforcements for the home stretch, but there’s plenty of road to travel before reaching it.