Chris Sale’s role isn’t set in stone when he returns to the Red Sox
Chris Sale is eligible to be activated from the 60-day injured list this weekend, it’s just a matter of how much time he needs to ramp up after missing spring training and the first two months of the season. His return will provide a significant lift to the Boston Red Sox pitching staff, whether it be to the rotation or the bullpen.
According to MassLive’s Christopher Smith, manager Alex Cora provided a positive update on Sale prior to Friday’s game in Oakland.
"“Everything is going well,” said Cora. “I spoke to Chris today. He feels really good where he’s at.”"
Sale mixed in all of his pitches during a 25-pitch bullpen session on Wednesday. He will throw another today with one more planned for next week before potentially throwing live batting practice next weekend. Cora was hesitant to lock in a firm schedule but it appears the lefty is on track to take the next step in his recovery soon, which could be the final hurdle before he’s ready for a rehab assignment.
He was understandably rusty when he returned from Tommy John surgery last year but Sale still showed flashes of his old self. This time it isn’t a serious arm injury he’s working his way back from. Sale doesn’t have the same questions about if he can still throw the same way lingering over him. The stress fracture in his right rib cage has healed but his throwing program was paused by a “small personal medical issue.” Those concerns are behind him now and Sale is as healthy as he’s been in a long time.
Sale would probably need at least four minor league starts to build up his workload in preparation for a return to the Red Sox rotation, which could push his return into next month. If the Red Sox want Sale to contribute as soon a possible, putting him in the bullpen is a path worth exploring since he wouldn’t need to worry about building up his pitch count in that role. It’s an option that the Red Sox haven’t ruled out.
It also might be the option that best serves the team’s current needs. Boston has been playing Russian Roulette with the closer role all season. The committee approach clearly isn’t working. The Red Sox are tied for the major league lead with 11 blown saves and tied for the second-most losses by relief pitchers, per FanGraphs. Boston has the second-fewest saves with eight and they are one of only four teams with more losses by relievers than successful save conversations.
Sale has never notched a save in his career but he does have experience working out of the bullpen. The Chicago White Sox used him as a reliever during his first two seasons in the big leagues and Sale thrived in the role, posting a 2.58 ERA and 10.6 K/9 over 94 1/3 innings.
He also memorably closed out Game 6 of the 2018 World Series, sending Manny Machado down to a knee chasing strike three to clinch the championship.
If Sale is capable of handling the pressure of the ninth inning on the game’s biggest stage, there’s no doubt he has the mindset to thrive as a closer.
Teams aren’t willing to pay $30 million for a pitcher who only handles one inning but the Red Sox need to forget about the contract and focus on how to best utilize Sale. His long-term value is certainly higher if he returns to being the ace of the rotation but this team’s biggest weakness right now is at the back of the bullpen.
The Red Sox rotation has been surprisingly solid this season, ranking 11th in the majors and 7th in the AL with a 3.75 ERA.
The lone weak spot in the rotation is Rich Hill, who carries a 4.85 ERA after getting shelled for six earned runs in his last appearance. The veteran has failed to make it through five innings in six of his nine starts. He’s the clear choice to get bumped from the rotation if the Red Sox intend to use Sale as a starter when he returns.
Replacing Hill isn’t a pressing need though. Very few teams have five solid starting pitchers. Boston can still contend with a struggling fifth starter. They aren’t making it very far without a reliable arm to close out tightly contested games.
If Hill continues to decline, the Red Sox can move Tanner Houck back into the rotation. Connor Seabold or Josh Winckowski could provide reinforcements from Triple-A. The internal candidates to upgrade the back of the rotation are more appealing than Boston’s options to fill the closer role.
A trade deadline move could shake up the bullpen by acquiring a proven closer, in which case Sale would be better off in the rotation. The Red Sox might not be able to wait that long. They enter the day only 1.5 games out of a Wild Card spot but their playoff hopes could unravel in a hurry if they don’t fix their leaky bullpen.
Any team would gladly insert vintage Chris Sale at the top of their rotation and he would certainly help the Red Sox if they are willing to wait for him to return in that role. Right now, this team needs a lights out closer more than another starting pitcher. Even if it’s only temporary, Sale should be the closer for the Red Sox.
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