Chris Sale is not in a position to be picky. He’d be happy to return to the rotation, to the bullpen, and he’d probably be willing to sit behind the plate as a lefthanded catcher if that would get him back to the big leagues.
The lefthander threw live batting practice in Fort Myers on Monday, touching 96 miles per hour in his first time throwing to hitters since suffering a stress fracture in his right ribcage in late February, and returned to Fenway Park on Tuesday. He’s expected to throw another live batting practice session against teammates Thursday, simulating two innings. Barring a setback, he’s hoping to follow that outing by going on a minor league rehab assignment next week.
“I feel good enough to do that,” said Sale. “Physically, mentally, everything, I feel like I’m ready to start this process and get going and get back here quick.”
Of course, nothing has come quickly to Sale over the past 27 months. He underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2020. His rehab had setbacks, leaving him unable to return to the Red Sox rotation until the middle of last August.
When he did return, Sale was competitive and effective — helping the Sox reach the postseason — but not up to his overpowering standard. He spent the offseason determined to rebuild himself as a dominant front-of-the-rotation pitcher, only to suffer the rib fracture while throwing to college hitters in late February.
Sale and the team hoped that he might be back in the big league rotation by early June. Instead, he suffered two more setbacks.
The first came in May, when he had to take a break for what the team described as a non-baseball-related, non-COVID, personal medical issue.
“I just had to take about a week and a half off. I had some stuff come up. Given some family history stuff, I had to check off some boxes for some scary things,” said Sale, who declined to offer greater detail. “I have three sons. I have a family. I had to make sure that that was clean and clear before anything. It’s all resolved. Everything’s in the clear. Fortunately — or unfortunately for who’s watching this — I’m not going to die.”
More recently, Sale had a stomach bug that delayed his live batting practice session by a few days. All of that means that the 33-year-old is just now finally starting to face hitters, with some distance separating him from a return to the Red Sox pitching staff.
It was one thing for Sale to accept his long road back from Tommy John surgery — a process that comes with well-understood protocols and timetables. The inability to pitch for more than two months of this season, Sale said, has been more frustrating, given that none of the injuries or health concerns he’s faced has been related to his arm.
“I’m not helping my team. I’m as good as a sack of potatoes right now for this team. At least that would feed them,” he said. “I’m doing literally nothing to help this team. That sucks.
“I’ll never be all right with even the freak stuff. If it’s taking time away from me being a baseball player, I’m not going to be OK with it even if it is unlucky. But with that being said, I understand that there’s bigger atrocities in the world, people going through harder times . . . I just want to compete again.”
Given that outlook, Sale made clear that he’d be fine with returning in any role of the team’s choosing.
Sale reached the big leagues as a reliever in 2010, the same year in which he was drafted, and spent 2011 as a lockdown bullpen option. He’s made just four relief appearances since 2012 — three of them in the playoffs, including for the final inning of the 2018 World Series against the Dodgers — but wouldn’t hesitate to contribute in shorter bursts if asked to do so.
“Nothing really matters other than getting back out there,” said Sale. “I have experience [starting and relieving] and at the end of the day, whatever it is, it is. For me, pitching is pitching . . . Hand me the ball, I’ll throw it until you take it. That’s where I’m at.”
Team officials have said that they wouldn’t rule out having the lefthander return as a member of the bullpen but have yet to make any decisions on the matter. Sale’s progress and the overall state of the pitching staff will shape his eventual usage.
Of course, the pitching staff is in a state of flux. Both Garrett Whitlock and Nate Eovaldi are on the injured list. The team is hopeful that both will be able to return this month, but their absences serve as a reminder of the fragility of starting pitching — as does, for that matter, the difficulty of getting Sale to the point of pitching.
The Sox believe they now have something that has been absent in recent years: viable rotation alternatives in Triple A. Kutter Crawford’s five shutout innings in Seattle on Sunday served as a sign of promise for a group that also includes Josh Winckowski (a candidate to start Wednesday), Connor Seabold, and top pitching prospect Brayan Bello. Lefthander James Paxton is also making progress in his return from Tommy John surgery and could be available in July.
“We’ve got options and we feel comfortable with them coming up and doing the job,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “This year I do believe we have some special arms, not only for one start but for 15 days, 20 days to come up and do their thing.”
All of those considerations will factor into what the Sox decide to do with Sale. For both the pitcher and the club, the mere possibility of a choice that involves a return to the big leagues represents a long-awaited development.