The Boston Red Sox season could hinge on just that – a hinge or the questionable arm of Chris Sale. Masahiro Tanka may provide a possible future for Sale.
What does seven seasons posting a 99-35 record and a 2.35 ERA get you? In the case of Masahiro Tanaka, a seven-year, $155 million contract to play for the New York Yankees and bid farewell to Rakuten Golden Eagles of the JPPL. Tanaka was simply the best pitcher in Japan and worth the risk.
What does nine seasons posting a 103-62 record and a 2.89 ERA get you? In the case of Chris Sale, a five-year, $145 million contract extension signed before the start of the 2019 season. Sale was simply one of the best in MLB at his particular craft known as pitching a small white sphere with exceptional velocity and control.
The signing of Sale certainly had some pundits questioning the Red Sox eagerness based on his questionable arm that caused an extensive shut down in 2018. Sale’s delivery has long been one that his mechanics were the proverbial arm accident waiting to happen. In 2019, that is exactly what happened. Sale went from extraordinary to ordinary.
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Tanaka has walked a tightrope in his Yankee career regarding his moneymaker right arm. A partially torn UCL in his arm put Tanaka on the injured list for several weeks in an attempt to avoid Tommy John Surgery. Tanaka still made 20 starts going 13-5, but the questions lingered.
Sale in 2019 made 25 starts but unlike Tanaka’s injury-ravaged first year they were quite forgettable. Sale finally was shut down in the middle of August. The final numbers were just six wins against 11 losses and a career-high 4.40 ERA. Sale had moments where his speed was back and others where a five-year-old on a scooter was faster.
Tanaka was judiciously used in 2015, making 25 starts. Tanka improved as the season advanced, but only slightly. Yankee fans and certainly media were in two camps: Get the surgery now or continue to plug along. Tanka plugged along to a 12-7 record.
In 2016, Tanaka made 31 starts and finished 14-4 with a 3.07 ERA so the corner was turned or was it? The last three seasons have a glimpse of just maybe the surgery would have been a solid move. Tanaka has a 36-27 record and 4.34 ERA. Like Sale, last season the old magic may appear for one game and disappear the next. Tanaka is a good pitcher, but not a great one. One reason why the Yankees are seeking out Gerrit Cole.
The questions regarding Sale will be answered this spring or into the season. Sale is confident, as he should be, but doubts still linger and rightfully so. The Red Sox are paying for ace material and 2019 certainly was not representative of that. Now that price will be $30 million. If Sale continues to have arm issues the Red Sox have limited options.
The Red Sox can follow the path of Tanaka and monitor use carefully with the expected shutdowns and decreased performance. For Tanaka and the Yankees it has moderately worked to keep him on the mound, but what would have resulted if Tanka had surgery and returned is still most certainly debatable? Some hurlers return as fresh as a refurbished luxury car and others do not.
That other option would mean a season or longer gone. A significant bite in both payroll and certainly in expectations for the team. The loss of Sale would place the Red Sox in a dire position for returning to the playoffs. The final decision is always on the player based on medical evaluation, potential positive/negative outcomes, and just how the player feels about his body. Sale lives in it and knows the rhythms if something is right or wrong.
This spring Sale’s arm will be the Venus De Milo of the Red Sox camp. The hope is that sculptor Praxiteles who created the masterpiece is not replaced by Dr. Andrews and his surgical skills.