Saturday morning, hope stirred in the Red Sox organization.
Chris Sale had just thrown for the second time following surgery to repair the broken pinkie he’d suffered on a liner up the middle July 17 against the Yankees.
Sale was throwing at Boston College (necessary with Fenway being used for concerts over the weekend). While the lefthander had yet to incorporate changeups — a pitch that relies on pressure from the pinkie — trainer Brad Pearson was sufficiently excited by initial glimpses to call Sox manager Alex Cora. Not only was a return in 2022 for Sale in play, but Pearson and Cora discussed whether the team could expedite a return by having him contribute out of the bullpen.
Hours later, that glimmer of possibility represented the latest cruel turn involving the 33-year-old lefthander.
According to Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, Sale drove home, jumped on his bicycle to get some lunch, hit something while riding downhill that threw him off, and he fractured his right wrist.
On Monday, Sale underwent surgery at the Newton-Wellesley Outpatient Surgery Center. He won’t pitch again this year.
“You couldn’t make this up, right?” said Bloom. “We need to dispatch some people to go find whoever has the Chris Sale voodoo doll and recover it.
“It stinks. It’s really unfortunate. We’re relieved this wasn’t worse. It was a pretty rough spill and very glad this wasn’t worse. It’s been such a run of bad luck for him and, obviously, for us.”
The injury is the latest in a series of unusual and unlikely injuries that ultimately ended Sale’s season after two starts and 5⅔ innings.
He missed the first three months of the season while recovering from a stress fracture in his right ribcage as well as a personal medical (non-baseball-related) issue but returned to pitch five shutout innings July 12 against the Rays.
In his next outing, July 17 against the Yankees, a first-inning liner fractured his left pinkie and required surgery. News of the wrist fracture added to the sense of absurdity surrounding the pitcher’s health.
“I was like, ‘Come on!’ ” acknowledged Cora.
This year represents the continuation of a brutal stretch of health that has plagued Sale for the first three seasons of the five-year, $145 million extension he signed in the spring of 2019, a contract that covers the 2020-24 seasons.
He missed all of 2020 and the first four months of 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Over the last three seasons, Sale has made 14 starts, including the playoffs, pitching a total of 57½ innings — woefully little return for a pitcher who was signed to be a rotation anchor, and a reminder of how the spring when Sale signed his deal shaped the Red Sox for the years that have followed.
After the Sox re-signed Nate Eovaldi (four years, $68 million) in December 2018, then-president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski tried to identify a course for the Sox as several of their most prominent players — Sale, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts — edged closer to free agency.
In spring training, the Red Sox determined that the gap in negotiations with Betts would be too great to bridge and that he’d almost certainly depart in free agency. With Eovaldi and David Price already under contract, Dombrowski believed that the team should build around veteran starting pitching to create stability. Signing Sale was part of that strategy.
Eovaldi, Price, and Sale all missed considerable time in 2019, effectively flushing the team’s chances of repeating, and contributing to the decision to fire Dombrowski.
Price’s contract was deemed an albatross that the Red Sox elected to partially dump (splitting $32 million per year) in the trade of Betts to the Dodgers. Sale got shut down in August 2019 with an elbow strain, tore his ulnar collateral ligament completely in March 2020, and has rarely pitched since.
Though Eovaldi excelled in 2020-21, the Sox have been spending roughly $41.6 million per year (as calculated for luxury tax purposes) on Sale and Price since 2020. Even with one of the largest payrolls in the game, the poor return on those two players — on top of the absence of Sale from the Sox rotation — has been felt.
While Sale has the right to opt out of the last two years of his deal after this season and will evaluate his options in the offseason, it’s almost impossible to imagine he’d be able to match the remaining two years and $55 million on his deal. And given that he’s barely pitched over the last three years and that he’ll be 34 next year, it’s fair to wonder whether Sale will ever be the pitcher the Sox hoped they’d get when they signed him.
“I think everybody knows how we felt about [Sale at the time of the signing],” said Cora. “Sometimes stuff like this happens but it’s not over yet. He’ll be part of it next year. We hope that he’ll make 30 starts and take it to the next level and pitch in October like we always try to do.”
Bloom said that Sale is expected to be fully recovered by spring training, though noted that there may be workload limitations, even assuming that he remains healthy given how little he’s pitched since 2019.
“There’s no reason not to expect him to be back and be the Chris Sale that we know,” said Bloom. “This is just an incredibly bizarre run of events.”
For both the Red Sox and Sale, it has certainly been a series of unfortunate events.