LAS VEGAS — With only the 2019 season left on his contract, a healthy Chris Sale may be the most viable target the Red Sox have amongst their stars for an extension.
Sale is open to extension talks, sources told NBC Sports Boston, with indications that he is more open to those talks than most players of his caliber would be when sitting just a year away from free agency. It’s unclear if there’s any movement on that front yet, with one team source noting that extensions generally brew later in the offseason.
“They come around at all different times for guys,” Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said generally. “I would prefer to not be [talking] in-season. That would be really more my cutoff date.”
The good news for all parties, and certainly relevant to any extension discussions: a regular offseason now is expected to mean 100 percent health for Sale.
An MRI showed no structural damage to his shoulder, sources said.
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But just how much pain Sale was pitching through at the end of 2018 may be under appreciated, in part because of his reticence to speak on the matter — and in part because of how awkwardly Dombrowski in turn handled that reticence.
When pressed on Sale’s health at multiple points this offseason, Dombrowski gave the avoidable appearance the Sox were hiding something, before giving a basic explanation Monday that Sale, spotlight averse, wanted to limit what was said.
“Our training staff has cleared him, doctors have cleared him 100 percent,” Dombrowski said, who said Sale has been throwing this winter.
But the severity of Sale’s bursitis in his throwing shoulder was indeed a major factor in the playoffs, when the lefty's velocity dipped, but his success did not. There just wasn’t enough time for the ace lefty to fully recover, and the discomfort became both recurring and excruciating for a pitcher who, had he stayed healthy, may well have won the Cy Young.
Sale went to the disabled list on July 31. He came back for one start in early August, was throwing gas, and went back on the DL again.
Sale had severe tendinitis, which is part and parcel with bursitis. He rested, felt some relief, and then the pain came back worse than ever, sources said. But he gutted through it with the knowledge that, eventually, rest should make that condition fully better.
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“From a rest perspective, perhaps if he’d had more at that time,” Dombrowski said. “But he was cleared to go by everybody, he felt 100 percent, and there was no question that was it. But some of it had to do with coming back at pitching and maybe not being quite at that same point. But there was never any doubt that he was ready to go and OK.”
Sale, of course, wound up briefly hospitalized in the postseason. He joked he was being treated for an infection related to a belly-button ring. But it never took much to connect the dots between the stomach illness he was combatting and the state of his arm, which he was pulling out all stops to treat, and may have included medication that could make him ill.
Sale’s velocity jumped in the middle of the 2018 season, something that probably worked to the detriment of his shoulder. He fell in love, seemingly, with a triple-digit fastball. That's correctable.
“He’s good at 95 with that slider, too,” manager Alex Cora said Monday. “We know what we have. We know what we’re going to do next year."
After leaving some potential money on the table with his current contract — a five-year extension in spring 2013 that has made him $57.5 million, including 2019’s $13.5 million salary — Sale may well want to test the market. He’ll have earned that right as a Hall of Fame track pitcher, a modern-day Randy Johnson.
At the same time, maximizing dollars has never appeared a singular goal for Sale. He’s well liked in town, particularly after recording the final out of the World Series, for his success and demeanor alike.
There are plenty of players the Sox will want to try to keep long term. But Sale, within reason, may be of a slightly different mindset than others.
Mookie Betts, a free agent after 2020, has long looked destined to test the open market, unless the Sox pay him in a way comparable to his open-market value — and Bryce Harper and Manny Machado probably need to sign before that value can be gauged accurately. J.D. Martinez is a Scott Boras client, as is Xander Bogaerts. Both are up after ’19, and likely to hit free agency as well.
Durability hasn’t always been Sale’s hallmark, which could give him some incentive to act sooner rather than later. But he's always worked very hard on his fitness, and is so talented that he'll have no shortage of suitors.
Most importantly, there is confidence that he will return for 2019 at full health.
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