Red Sox: Chris Sale getting green light can’t mask fragile rotation

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 26: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the first inning of a game against the Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park on June 26, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 26: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the first inning of a game against the Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park on June 26, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Chris Sale has been given the go-ahead to resume throwing, but the Boston Red Sox starting rotation isn’t out of the woods yet.

The Boston Red Sox and Chief of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom recently got the news they were hoping for when Dr. James Andrews declared pitcher Chris Sale fit and ready to resume throwing. Andrews’ thumbs-up for Sale’s left elbow signaled the realization that the lanky lefty should be on track to hit spring training at full throttle.

Even with his lackluster 2019 season (a career-worst 6-11 record and 4.40 ERA), Sale remains the ace of Boston’s starting rotation. His track record of Cy Young Award candidacy consistency, as well as a new 5-year contract for $145 million, says he’s still the main man on the mound.

That status even accounts for last year’s star-is-born emergence of fellow southpaw Eduardo Rodriguez (19-6, 3.81, 213 strikeouts in 203.1 innings), although E-Rod needs to prove he can sustain that performance level in coming years.

Sale’s once-questionable 2020 status explains why Bloom and the rest of the Red Sox brain trust were on pins, needles, and scalpel the past three and a half months. That’s how long it had been since the Red Sox shut down Sale for the season (mid-August) and sent him to see Andrews, who, after examining Sale, gave him a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.

The apparent success of the PRP in hastening the healing of Sale’s elbow has taken the possibility of Tommy John surgery off the table, at least for now. That brought a huge sigh of relief across Red Sox Nation. The bad news is that the Red Sox are far from out of the woods, starting pitching-wise.

With the Hot Stove League now getting toasty, Bloom should consider a contingency plan devised specifically for a Red Sox rotation that remains thin, fragile and beleaguered by an ugly 2019 that afflicted three-quarters of the returning starters.

Precarious health remains a concern when it comes to Sale, whose unorthodox whip-like motion will still put ample stress on his PRP-nurtured elbow, as well as for David Price and Nathan Eovaldi.

Price is coming off wrist surgery to remove a cyst, while Eovaldi will always wear a scarlet TJ for two such surgeries in his history, in addition to the elbow surgery he had in June 2019 that cost him half the season. PRP success or not, Sale’s health still has a roll-of-the-dice feel to it. Ditto Price and Eovaldi. The Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” is in play here.

Those three combined to pitch only 322.1 innings last season; each missed significant time for health reasons, and it’s becoming an old story. Sale has been on the injured list three times over the last two seasons, missing a total of 12 starts in that span. There’s also that nagging history of significant drop-offs in the second half of seasons, a tendency that takes on added urgency now that Sale is north of 30.

Smart money says none of those three starters reach 30 starts and 200 innings in 2020. Meanwhile, the not-so-smart money has Sale, Price, and Eovaldi pulling down an aggregate $79 million next season. That paints Bloom into a corner as he juggles an apparent mandate to get the team’s taxable payroll under $208 million, amid an expectation of a return to the playoffs while revitalizing a health-challenged starting rotation with three contracts close to unmovable.

Conventional wisdom, even for an unconventional GM-type like Bloom, suggests the need for a net gain of two starters – one to replace Porcello and the other to be a spot starter or the “long reliever” that follows an opener (if the Red Sox go that route). Acquiring that second starter takes on added urgency as a trade replacement if Bloom deals Sale, Price or Eovaldi to get below $208 million (or further below, if Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez also gets traded) to create space for inexpensive additions.

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There’s also the question of how many starts Sale, Price and/or Eovaldi can make in 2020; 85-90 between them seems reasonable, maybe optimistic, given their health profiles. That leaves 70-plus starts to fill—or more, by design, such as an extra day of rest for half of Price’s starts. As reported by Peter Abraham in the Boston Globe, Price sported a 2.77 ERA in 11 starts last season on at least five days’ rest; in his 10 starts made on four days’ rest, his ERA ballooned to 6.91. Pushing Price, now 34, to start every fifth day no holds barred seems unwise for a $32-million-a-year investment.

Trading either Betts or Martinez – not a nice thought – should get the Sox under $208 million. But it will likely take more payroll cuts, such as a Jackie Bradley Jr. salary-dump trade, to adequately fill the starting rotation and bolster the bullpen. Some moving parts are involved here.

Boston’s best in-house bets to eventually fill a No. 5 starter’s role could be minor leaguers Ryan Weber and Travis Lakins. Each showed glimpses of effectiveness in limited roles – both took turns starting and relieving – at the MLB level in 2019. Plus there’s always Brian Johnson, who cleared waivers in November and could make a comeback in 2020 if he can rebuild his game and confidence at Pawtucket.

Looking elsewhere, newly minted free agents not tendered by their respective clubs include potential depth starters such as right-handers Aaron Sanchez from Houston, Jimmy Nelson from Milwaukee and Taijuan Walker from Arizona, who are among the compelling non-tenders identified by ESPN’s David Schoenfield. Each of those three was scheduled to make about $4-5 million in 2020 while seeking bouncebacks from health issues.

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Re-signing Porcello remains a possibility, although that would probably mean salary concessions from Porcello, with incentives built in. Other veteran free agents possibly amenable to a cheap, minor-league deal include former Red Sox Clay Buchholz as well as Felix Hernandez, Ross Detwiler, Drew Smyly, Alex Wood and perhaps even Rich Hill, who wouldn’t be available until June or July following elbow surgery.