ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — At first glance, Chris Sale’s immediate future with the Red Sox seems clear.
The team holds two years of options. It will likely pick up the $12.5 million option for 2018 and the $13.5 million option for 2019. At that point, Sale will be 30 years old.
But is it that easy?
Barring injury, Sale will be the front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award this season and may also receive consideration for MVP. Sale and his agent, B.B. Abbott, signed that contract, so they knew what they were getting into.
But given the way he has pitched, Sale should be in the $30 million-per-year stratosphere with David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Zack Greinke.
So what do the Red Sox do here? Do they run the course of the contract and pick up the options? After all, it was the controllable and reasonable contract that attracted them to the deal with the White Sox in the first place.
Sale will have nothing to say about his contract. It’s signed, sealed, and being executed by the Red Sox. The White Sox did a good job negotiating it. And it certainly assured that Sale would be compensated well.
There’s no question that he’s in the prime of his career. But he is outperforming his contract.
The Sox have likely learned their lesson about giving out hefty long-term contracts to pitchers 30 and older. They’re experiencing that right now with Price, whom they gave a seven-year, $217 million deal.
Price has an opt-out after next season, but we have no idea at this juncture how he will come back from his latest elbow problem. If he has to have surgery, Price could be lost through the 2018 season and part of 2019, at a big cost to the team.
But there are two sides to every issue.
Do the Red Sox risk a strained relationship with Sale if they don’t attempt to extend his deal? Can they blow up the options, add three more years, and get Sale closer in line to what he should be making?
Players tend to remember things like that when the time comes to stay or leave. Pablo Sandoval is a good example. While the Giants’ offer to Sandoval was similar to the Red Sox’, he chose Boston because there was a part of him that resented the Giants for not making more of an effort to sign him before he became a free agent. Turned out it was an excellent decision for the Giants and a bad one for the Red Sox, who get charged $19 million on their payroll for 2018 and 2019.
The Red Sox could split this down the middle. Maybe they pick up the 2018 option, and if Sale has another really good year in 2018, they rip up the 2019 option and extend him.
It just seems apparent that, sometime before the two options are exercised, the Red Sox would try to tie up Sale so he won’t leave as a free agent.
Again, this all has to do with performance. Obviously, 2017 is off the charts in that regard, and the $12 million the Sox are paying him is a bargain.
Dave Dombrowski does have a history of doing this. He did it with Justin Verlander in Detroit. In March 2013, Dombrowski negotiated a seven-year, $180 million deal that replaced the last two seasons of Verlander’s previous contract.
Verlander, who won the AL Cy Young and MVP in 2011, was due to earn $20 million in 2013 and 2014. The new deal gave him those same salaries but bumped him to $28 million for 2015-19, with a $22 million vesting option if he finishes in the top five in Cy Young voting in 2019.
The deal was consummated after Verlander’s seventh full year, in his age 29 season.
Of course, one difference is that Dombrowski did not already have a $30 million-plus pitcher on the staff in Detroit. The Red Sox are very conscious of staying under the luxury-tax threshold.
Verlander remains one of the best pitchers in baseball; he was in Cy Young contention last season and is pitching at a high level again in 2017. The Tigers and Astros have been in trade talks as Verlander, because of his large contract, passed through waivers.
Asked whether he will ask Dombrowski to do for Sale what he did for Verlander, Abbott said, “You’ll have to ask Dave that.”
Dombrowski did not want to comment on any contract talks involving Sale (or anyone else), feeling that it’s not in anyone’s best interest. It would stand to reason that if things continue to go well for Sale, there will be offseason discussions about a more long-term future for him in Boston.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.