The risk of letting Chris Sale play out the 2019 season before entering free agency was obvious: Sale dominates, wins a Cy Young, and then hits the open market in the front seat of an empty Brinks truck labeled, “Feed Me.”
However, the risk of signing Sale to an extension before he threw a pitch in anger may have been even greater: what we’re watching right now.
It’s early, and Sale has time to find his velocity, his release point, his extension, and whatever else he needs to become the overpowering force who has started three straight All-Star Games.
But in the meantime, we’re left to wonder what exactly the Red Sox were thinking when they committed an extra five years and $145 million to a pitcher who:
(a) finished 2017 with such diminished stuff, the Astros blasted four homers off him in the playoffs;
(b) made just one real start between July 27 and the end of last season;
(c) was only allowed to finish the World Series clincher when the Red Sox decided they had built a big enough lead.
And hell, let’s throw a (d) in there, too: His two worst months, by far, are August and September/October. He owns a losing lifetime record (11-16) after Sept. 1. He wears down.
Two starts into 2019, Sale has allayed exactly none of those concerns. His velocity has dropped alarmingly, from the low-90s in his season debut to 88-89 in a gutsy start No. 2.
The Globe’s Alex Speier broke down how a lack of extension has curtailed Sale’s ability to let it rip. A rival scout told the Boston Sports Journal’s Sean McAdam that Sale looks like he’s favoring his shoulder. The stats show Sale with nearly as many homers and walks allowed (4 each) as strikeouts (5).
Forget about 2024, when Sale will be in the final year of his extension. We’re worried about 2019, when the new contract hasn’t even started yet. So how did this happen?
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has always acted aggressively, both in acquiring players and extending them. He signed Miguel Cabrera to a pair of eight-year contracts. The first, for $152 million, ended up being a steal, with Cabrera winning a pair of MVPs, as well as a Triple Crown.
The second, however, looks like a bust. His new $248 million deal started in 2016, when Cabrera slammed 38 homers and made the All-Star team, but he appeared in only 38 games last year and is hitting just .235 this year. He’s signed through 2023, when he’ll be making $30 million at age 40. Ouch.
Dombrowski clearly errs on the side of getting bleep done, and that clarity of purpose has served him well in Boston, leading to World Series contributors like Craig Kimbrel, Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi, and J.D. Martinez to name five.
But short-term gains mask potential long-term pain. Price has already battled elbow issues serious enough that two renowned surgeons admitted they’d have recommended Tommy John surgery were he younger. Eovaldi signed a $68 million extension after a dominating postseason, but he’s undergone two elbow surgeries and was actually inconsistent after arriving from Tampa. Kimbrel helped the Red Sox reach the playoffs, but then nearly sent them home early.
Sale belongs in another category entirely. The Red Sox believed he was healthy when they signed him to a team-friendly extension. It’s fair to wonder how they reached that conclusion, based on his limp to the finish in 2018 and his stumble from the gates now.
Locking up a healthy Sale made all the sense in the world. He’s a legitimate alpha atop the rotation, he doesn’t pay attention to the petty dramas that have derailed other Boston superstars, and he wants to be here. Those are three major selling points for a Cy Young contender.
But given the already depressed market for 30-year-old starting pitching, the Red Sox might not have paid Sale much more than $145 million even if he had finished 25-4. They had every incentive to wait and see.
Instead they pounced, and as Sale prepares to take the ball in Tuesday’s home opener, we’re left to wonder if this Jamie Moyer act is just a temporary blip, or the start of something truly regrettable.
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