Red Sox ace Chris Sale optimistic about “new beginning” after surgery

FT. MYERS, FL - MARCH 1: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox throws before a Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves on March 1, 2020 at jetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
FT. MYERS, FL - MARCH 1: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox throws before a Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves on March 1, 2020 at jetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale is looking forward to a new beginning when he returns from Tommy John surgery and will be ready to live up to his contract.

Chris Sale celebrated his 31st birthday a bit differently than most of us would. Birthdays are typically an event where people want to be surrounded by family and friends but Sale was surrounded by doctors as he underwent surgery to repair his ailing elbow. The ace of the Boston Red Sox will miss the entire 2020 season and potentially part of next year as he recovers from Tommy John surgery but he remains optimistic about his eventual return.

Sale recently spoke with ESPN’s Marly Rivera about his recovery. While he’s disappointed that the surgery forces him to miss time, the lefty has found a sliver lining. The issue that hindered his performance on the mound has been identified and corrected, putting him back on the path toward rediscovering his dominant form.

"“From a personal standpoint, I’m done trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. It’s like “OK, this is the end of all the crap that you’ve gone through for a couple years.” It’s like a new beginning for me,” said Sale. “I wouldn’t be able to play baseball productively without this surgery. I’m a baseball player, what can be better than getting a brand-new elbow for my birthday?”"

Sale sputtered through the worst year of his career in 2019, posting a 6-11 record and a 4.40 ERA. He showed occasional flashes of brilliance and maintained an elite strikeout rate but he uncharacteristically struggled with location, walking too many batters and giving up home runs at an alarming rate.

A slow start to the season can be blamed on being unprepared, as former manager Alex Cora‘s plan to limit the workload of his starters in spring training backfired for everyone in the rotation. Sale eventually began to find his groove for a stretch before unraveling again by the end of June. The rough patch lasted until mid-August when he was finally shut down for the season with what was deemed an elbow strain.

The Red Sox hoped to avoid surgery, claiming the Tommy John procedure was a last resort. When rest and rehab clearly weren’t cutting it, Sale had to accept that surgery was necessary.

There are many who believe that the lanky lefty’s frame and unorthodox delivery made this surgery inevitable, as if his elbow was a ticking time bomb ready to explode any time he took the mound. Did Sale break down as his doubters predicted or did he last longer than any of them expected?

"“That’s not for me to answer, but that’s what I would ask people,” said Sale. “If you look at my body of work before I blew out [my elbow], would you take that for the years that I played, for the money that I made? If it’s a no, it’s a no. I got no beef with anybody that agrees or disagrees with it. Now I’m sitting out a year and at the end of the day I’m gonna have like a brand-new elbow and I get to crank on this thing when I get ready to go and I’m gonna do the same thing that I did before.”"

Maybe his elbow giving out was inevitable but he made it through nine big league seasons before it ever became an issue, on top of everything he accomplished from college through the minor leagues.

The Red Sox have drawn criticism for inking Sale to a five-year, $145 million extension a year ahead of when he would have been eligible for free agency. The contract looks awful in the wake of his dismal 2019 season and the surgery that will sidelined him until sometime next year.

It’s not Sale’s fault that he’s perceived as an overpaid player. That’s a risk that comes with signing anyone to an expensive contract, especially a pitcher. He got hurt, it happens.

Sale spent most of his career pitching on a team-friendly contract. Part of his appeal that convinced the Red Sox to surrender a large bounty of prospects to trade for him is that he was making about half as much money as it would take to sign a comparable ace on the free-agent market. He only made $15 million last season, well below his market rate, and counted for far less against the luxury tax due to the low average annual value of his deal.

Boston was rewarded with an excellent 2017 season when Sale finished as the runner-up for the Cy Young award in his first season with the club. The Red Sox won a championship the following year with Sale recording the final out of the World Series. He did more than enough to live up to his bargain contract in those first two seasons. Now some people are ready to label him a bust after one poor season followed by an injury. He’s not letting the criticism bother him though.

"“What my teammates, what my family, what my coaches think about me, that’s first and foremost,” said Sale. “Not to mention the fact that all these people were talking about how I was so underpaid and undervalued, that I wasn’t making enough money for the production that I was doing. Then overnight, I’m an overpaid player. If the flag is that easily blown, you can’t really pay attention to it.”"

Sale has always had high expectations for himself and a burning desire to win. He’s as disappointed as anyone that he’s stuck on the shelf this year but he’s chomping at the bit to get back on the mound and prove himself again. It doesn’t matter if he’s underpaid or overpaid, the goal remains the same – winning.

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It’s been about six weeks since the surgery and Sale has started a shoulder program as the next step toward building his body back up. He still has a long road ahead of him but Sale is confident that he’s in good hands and will be primed for a comeback campaign next year.