Red Sox

Chris Sale might not be ready for Opening Day, but he's ready to make amends for 2019

Chris Sale might not be ready for Opening Day, but he's ready to make amends for 2019

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- And now for the non-cheating portion of Chris Sale's first press conference in six months, also known as the part that's most relevant to the team's chances in 2020 ...

While Sale's frank discussion of the Astros cheating scandal and the possibility that the Red Sox won't come out of the league's investigation unscathed will be sure to dominate headlines, Sale also spoke at length about his health and readiness to erase the disappointment of 2019.

The good news is that Sale believes his elbow is healthy. The bad news is that he contracted pneumonia two weeks ago and is still limited by the illness, which could jeopardize his availability on opening day.

"I got sick and tried to get over it for a couple of days, got a little bit worse, went back to the doctor and he was like, 'You've got pneumonia.' Well, that's inconvenient," Sale said. "What are you going to do? You deal with it and move on. Took some medicine, starting to move around a little bit, trying to get my stamina back up. I'm over the hump now. The worst of it's behind me, and now get back to doing baseball stuff."

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Sale hasn't pitched since shutting it down last August. What he described as a "major injury" to his elbow required a second opinion from noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, who proscribed rest and a platelet rich plasma injection, much to Sale's relief.

After months of therapy and strengthening, Sale returned to the rubber this winter and ended up throwing six or seven times off a mound, by his estimation.

"I feel better than I have in a long time, actually," he said. "I've never taken that time off before. I don't know if since I started playing baseball if I've had that time off. Obviously it's something you don't want to have to go through, that was miserable, but there's silver linings in everything. You try to take the positives in every crappy scenario that comes up. I think that time off helped my entire body regenerate, my shoulder, my elbow, my forearm, every muscle in my body got a long break and a time to heal. I think in the end it will help me out in the long run."

The misery Sale wasn't related to pain or uncertainty, but his absence.

"Just not throwing, not playing," he said. "Being in Florida in August, I've never done that, I've never not traveled with a team. Watching my team play from my bed or from my couch at my house is just a weird feeling. That's uncharted territory for me.

"Until you start throwing again, you don't know what it feels like. I can do all these exercises, I can lift every weight, I can do strength tests, I can move my arm in all different directions, but until you throw a baseball, you have no idea what you're working with. That was a great day for me, starting to throw again and actually seeing the progress we had made in the training room translate to the field."

Manager Ron Roenicke would like his pitchers to make six starts this spring in order to avoid a repeat of last year's stumble out of the gates. Sale might already be too far behind to reach that threshold in time for the opener in Toronto on March 26.

"I hope not," he said. "Whatever's best, that's what we're going to do. I trust these guys, I trust the process we have. Over the next couple of weeks we're going to map out a throwing program. I'm getting off the mound tomorrow, and then we'll build up to live BPs from that, but taking basically two weeks off right before spring training is not ideal."

If there's a silver lining to Sale's down 2019, which saw him go a career-worst 6-11 with a 4.40 ERA, it's that he was able to reflect on what went wrong while he threw what he described as "batting practice" in too many of his starts.

"You learn a lot about yourself when you're just sitting around with nothing going on," Sale said, adding, "As bad as I was last year, I learned a lot, and that's going to help me moving forward."

Hindsight 2020: Remember when the Red Sox chose the wrong All-Star to build around?

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AP photos

Hindsight 2020: Remember when the Red Sox chose the wrong All-Star to build around?

The Red Sox have made plenty of shrewd acquisitions over the last 20 years, from signing David Ortiz to trading for Curt Schilling to drafting Mookie Betts, with four World Series trophies as a result.

But given their volume of high-profile deals, it's inevitable that some will miss.

And so to kick off our Hindsight 2020 series from a front office perspective, we're going to break down one Red Sox move that would best be undone.

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From an historical perspective, convincing Harry Frazee not to send Babe Ruth to the Yankees would probably be a good place to start, but that's too obvious. If we fast-forward to Christmas of 1980, then we'd encourage Haywood Sullivan to show a little more urgency finding a post office with free agency beckoning for Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn. That's another easy one.

Bad free agent decisions usually stem from organizational breakdowns, which is why Ben Cherington's decision to sign Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval in the 2014 offseason isn't the choice, nor is Theo Epstein's acquisition of Carl Crawford or Matt Clement. Those were moves born of necessity after other player development and/or payroll mishaps.

No, today, we're going to consider an overlooked decision that nevertheless cost the franchise a Hall of Famer. Money wasn't the issue, nor was desperation. This came down to straight talent evaluation between a pair of All-Stars, and the Red Sox chose wrong.

So let's revisit the case of Adrian Beltre and the circumstances that led him to leave Boston after a one-and-done season that could've been so much more.

A 48-home run hitter and MVP runner-up with the Dodgers in 2004, Beltre signed a five-year, $64 million contract with the Mariners that left him spending his prime in exile, lost to the cavernous dimensions of Safeco Field.

He failed to make an All-Star team or top 26 homers in the Pacific Northwest, though he did win a pair of Gold Gloves. When he hit free agency before the 2010 season, agent Scott Boras sought a "pillow contract" that would allow Beltre to re-establish his value before returning to free agency a year later.

The Red Sox provided it with a one-year, $10 million offer. Beltre rewarded them, and then some, hitting .321, leading the league in doubles, making his first All-Star team, and winning a Silver Slugger. The Red Sox missed the playoffs anyway because of lousy pitching beyond 19-game winner Jon Lester and All-Star Clay Buchholz.

It wasn't Beltre's fault. He delivered not just on the field, but in the clubhouse, where his combination of professionalism, intensity, and self-deprecation made him widely respected, a reputation that would only grow in ensuing seasons. (There's a reason, a decade later, that Mitch Moreland believed Beltre would be just the man to mentor Rafael Devers through early-career struggles.)

Beltre's contract was structured to guarantee he'd spend only one year in Boston, with a $5 million player option both sides knew he'd decline.

Boston faced decisions that offseason. Both Beltre and All-Star catcher Victor Martinez were free agents, and Epstein had his sights on the long-time object of his affection: All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

At that point in their respective careers, few would've argued the 30-year-old Beltre represented a better bet than the 27-year-old Gonzalez, a former No. 1 overall pick who had already won a pair of Gold Gloves while blasting 40 homers in San Diego, no hitter's paradise.

With homegrown All-Star Kevin Youkilis one year into a $41 million extension and capable of playing either corner, Epstein had a decision to make: Beltre at third or Gonzalez at first.

He didn't have to think long or hard. He had openly lusted after Gonzalez for years, and on Dec. 6, swung a deal with former protégé Jed Hoyer, sending a package of three prospects, including future All-Star Anthony Rizzo, to San Diego.

Beltre was attending David Ortiz's charity golf tournament in the Dominican and didn't know the deal had been consummated until a couple of Boston reporters relayed the news. He grimaced, but his sadness proved short-lived. Within a month, the Rangers delivered a five-year, $80 million offer that might be the best free agent contract of the decade.

Over the next eight years, Beltre transformed himself into a Hall of Famer, making three All-Star teams, winning three Gold Gloves, and finishing in the top 10 of MVP voting for five straight years. He recorded his 3,000th hit in a Rangers uniform, and was a driving force behind four playoff berths, including a heartbreaking World Series loss to the Cardinals in 2011.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez immediately signed a $154 million extension and posted monster numbers, but nonetheless came to represent the unlikable, entitled and whiny 2011 team that collapsed down the stretch. A year later, Cherington blew up the roster by shipping Gonzalez, Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.

It's easy to wonder what might've been. Youkilis shifted to third from first base, where he had won a Gold Glove, and made an All-Star team, but injuries had already started taking their toll. A year later, he'd be traded after clashing with manager Bobby Valentine.

The 2011 collapse made Valentine's disastrous tenure possible, because it forced out both Epstein and manager Terry Francona. Could Beltre, one of the game's most respected leaders, had made a difference that September? Outside of Jacoby Ellsbury, the Red Sox wilted and desperately needed a steadying influence. At the very least, Beltre probably wouldn't have complained about inconvenient Sunday night travel while the season was going down the toilet.

If there's a saving grace, it's that Epstein and the front office recognized the deep 2011 draft as their final opportunity to spend with impunity before baseball imposed limits in the new CBA. They used the two compensatory picks they received for Beltre to take Blake Swihart and Jackie Bradley Jr. as part of a haul that also yielded Matt Barnes, Mookie Betts, and Travis Shaw.

Bradley helped the team win a World Series in 2018, and he also earned a ring in 2013.

Gonzalez posted solid but unspectacular numbers in L.A. before hitting .237 in 54 games with the 2018 Mets. He hasn't played since, meaning his career is likely over at age 37.

Beltre also played his final game in 2018, but he departed to significantly more fanfare, retiring with 3,166 hits, 477 homers, 93.6 WAR ... and one giant what-might-have-been in Boston.

How Chris Sale was able to have Tommy John surgery amid coronavirus shutdown

How Chris Sale was able to have Tommy John surgery amid coronavirus shutdown

In a vacuum, it was a standard announcement from the Boston Red Sox on Monday.

"Left-handed pitcher Chris Sale today underwent successful left UCL reconstruction ('Tommy John surgery,')" the team's statement read. "The procedure was performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache at the Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, CA."

But when you consider the circumstances -- that California is under a state-wide shelter-in-place order amid the global coronavirus pandemic -- it's pretty remarkable that Sale walked into a medical facility to undergo a non-essential operation.

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So, how did Sale and the Red Sox pull this off?

According to Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom, the team had plenty of internal debate before Sale flew to California on Monday.

"It was important to all of us to do this in a way that would not place any undue burden on anyone suffering due to coronavirus,” Bloom said Monday night in a conference call, via MassLive.com's Chris Cotillo.

"I spoke to Dr. ElAttrache personally to make sure that was the case here and he is just as mindful of the considerations that go along with surgery at a time like this. ... We know this is not life and death and that there are people who are suffering in situations that are life and death."

Los Angeles County (where Sale had his surgery) recently issued a memo recommending all elective surgeries be "limited" until further notice. But the memo didn't explicitly ban such operations, and ElAttrache is of the belief that they're borderline essential for top pitchers like Sale.

"I know that I’m going to get criticized for taking care of these kinds of guys, but it’s essential to their livelihoods," ElAttrache told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. "If you have somebody’s career at stake and they lose two seasons instead of one, I would say that is not a nonessential or unimportant elective procedure."

While ElAttrache's shop is still open, others are already shut down: Orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews recently announced he's suspending all Tommy John surgeries at his Florida clinic amid the pandemic.

The Red Sox revealed Sale would need surgery back on March 19 and didn't provide any updates until after Sale's operation Monday. So, why the delay?

Bloom told the reporters the team was working out logistics and making sure it was safe for Sale to go under the knife.

"I think under normal circumstances, we might have been able to have it happen a little bit sooner,” Bloom said. "Obviously, we’re still talking about a relatively short timetable. There’s usually a lag of a few days at a minimum to get something like this done, even in normal times. It was a little longer in this case just because of all the considerations that I discussed."

Sale faces a 14- to 15-month recovery that should sideline him until at least June 2021. But the 31-year-old likely is grateful he was able to have the operation at all before the pandemic worsens in the United States, which already has the most confirmed coronavirus cases of any country in the world.