Chris Sale could convert from Red Sox ace to bullpen weapon
Chris Sale has taken another significant step toward his return to the Boston Red Sox, throwing a bullpen session at Fenway Park this afternoon for the first time since 2019. According to Alex Speier of The Boston Globe, the lefty threw 25 pitches while showcasing his fastball, changeup and slider.
The team hasn’t set an official timeline for Sale’s return but manager Alex Cora called today’s bullpen the equivalent of one a pitcher would typically throw in January while preparing for the season. Sale feels that he’s completed his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery and now is at the point of simply building up his arm strength the way he would during spring training. That makes a late-July or early-August return a fair estimate.
Is it possible we could see Sale pitching for the Red Sox sooner than that? If it were up to him, the lefty would take the mound tomorrow.
While addressing the media on Tuesday, Sale was adamant that he’s “100 percent” certain that he’ll be back this season. If it means pushing up his timeline to allow him to help his team sooner, Sale is open to the idea of pitching out of the bullpen, a role that would require less time to build up his arm to handle.
"“I would be game for that,” Sale said when asked about a potential relief role. “The quicker I can get back, I’m game.”"
The concept of using Sale out of the bullpen isn’t completely far-fetched. He spent his first two seasons in the big leagues pitching out of the Chicago White Sox bullpen, posting a 2.58 ERA in 79 games.
Sale also made two relief appearances during the 2018 postseason, tossing a shutout inning in Game 4 of the ALDS against the New York Yankees and striking out the side in the 9th inning of the decisive game of the World Series. Manny Machado dropping to one knee while chasing a filthy slider from Sale to seal the victory is one of the lasting images from that historic season.
He’s clearly more valuable as a starting pitcher and that’s how the Red Sox currently plan to utilize him upon his return. Sale is certainly paid like a top-tier starter, not a middle reliever. Putting him back in the rotation is obviously the long-term goal. In the short term? The bullpen idea might be worth some consideration.
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The concept is certainly more viable considering how successful the current rotation has been. The Red Sox rotation has four starters who currently own a sub-4.00 ERA and rank within the top-30 American League starters (minimum 50 innings pitched).
The weakest link has surprisingly been Eduardo Rodriguez, who initially came back strong following a season lost to myocarditis but struggled in May. He currently owns a 5.59 ERA but his 4.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio would be the best of his career and he made some encouraging progress in his last outing against the Yankees. E-Rod is in a contract year and needs a strong season to prove he’s worthy of the lucrative deal he deserves. Are the Red Sox really going to tell him he’s out of the rotation when Sale comes back? They risk spoiling their chance to re-sign him this winter if they cross that bridge.
If Boston keeps the faith with Rodriguez, which pitcher is getting booted to the bullpen? There are no obvious alternatives based on what we’ve seen this season. Sale is still over a month away from contributing to the major league team so injuries or performance issues could make the decision for them. If everyone is healthy and pitching well by the time he’s ready, putting Sale in the bullpen – at least temporarily – might be what’s best for the team.
Sale is a fiery competitor who is chomping at the bit to get back on the mound. He’ll do whatever the team needs him to do in order to win. If the bullpen is the quickest path to getting him back on the active roster, the team needs to be as open to the idea as their recovering ace appears to be.