Given their stature as contenders with tremendous resources, the Boston Red Sox had a relatively quiet trade deadline. That’s partly due to ownership’s current refusal to invest in the product at the levels that it deserves, but it’s also a reaction to the fact that ace lefty Chris Sale was set to return from Tommy John surgery.
As the Red Sox try to claw their way back into the postseason battle, they need Chris Sale to be a frontline ace
A player like Sale is difficult to equal when it comes to roster reinforcements in a pinch. That comeback has occurred — more on that later — and subsequent developments have increased the stakes for both Sale and the Red Sox. The Red Sox are currently out of playoff contention in the American League, although by a razor-thin margin, thanks to a recent sweep by the rival Yankees. That’s a stunning reversal of fortunes for a team that won 55 games in the first half and enjoyed a 4 12 game lead in the AL East in early July. It also places Sale in the spotlight in the future. If the Sox are to go back into playoff contention and possibly put some pressure on the Rays at the top of the division, Sale will need to return to his old form right immediately.
First and foremost, there’s the question of why the Sox require anything like Peak Sale in the final five weeks of the regular season. Boston now ranks seventh in the 15-team AL in rotation ERA, which is not ideal for a playoff contender. The fact that they rank 13th in the AL in rotation WHIP is also discouraging. They have a 13th-place quality start percentage and a ninth-place average Game Score.On a more specific level, Nathan Eovaldi is a capable No. 2 or No. 3 starter with the ability to improve his peripheral signs and become a near-ace, assuming he stays healthy. Things start to get a little hazy after that. Nick Pivetta has shown flashes of brilliance here and there, but his current peak appears to be that of a league-average starting pitcher. Sure, it’s valuable, but he can’t co-anchor the front end for a club that wants to play in October. Eduardo Rodriguez, on the other hand, has an ERA of nearly 5.00 due to his slowed velocity. Sale, on the other hand, has plenty of reasons to believe he can be the front-line ace the Red Sox require. He allowed two runs in five innings in his first start back, but more impressively, he struck out eight batters while walking none. That was the end of his successful rehab assignment.
Also promising is the fact that the staff took a systematic, albeit slow, approach to his Tommy John recovery. Because of his cautious return to the majors, Sale is expected to avoid the early command-and-control troubles that plague pitchers recovering from surgery. In portions of three seasons with Boston, Sale has a 3.08 ERA and 6.69 K/BB ratio, including the disastrous 2019 season, when he was clearly not himself due to elbow concerns that eventually necessitated surgery. He has an ERA+ of 140 and a WAR of 45.6 across his ten-year career. He also leads the league in strikeout rate and K/BB ratio in his active career. There’s no reason for him to be concerned about serious degeneration at the age of 32. Obviously, the track record exists, as does the post-surgery performance (albeit across a limited sample).
Sale will have nine starts left in the regular season, counting Friday’s game against Texas, assuming he stays on track. Those are nine starts that would have gone to someone significantly less talented if Sale hadn’t been available. That reflects both Sale’s brilliance and the Red Sox’s terrible depth in the position. If Sale takes advantage of those opportunities, the Sox — who are in a battle for two wild card positions with the Yankees and A’s (and possibly the Mariners and Blue Jays) — may be able to return to the postseason. If Sale isn’t his regular self at the deadline, the Red Sox’s tale for 2021 will be one of squandered opportunities and a failure to act like a big-market winner. By doing so little in the weeks preceding up to July 30, the front office made a large gamble on Sale. We’ll find out soon if that wager paid off.
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