It's Time for World Champion Red Sox to Give Chris Sale a $150M MegadealNovember 1, 2018
Chris Sale will return to chase another World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox in 2019, as the team picked up his $15 million contract option Tuesday.
The next step should involve offering him roughly 10 times that amount to stay for the long haul.
For now, the Red Sox are in no rush. They spent Wednesday celebrating their World Series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers with a parade through Boston. According to Christopher Smith of MassLive.com, team owner John Henry had no updates on contract talks with Sale or anyone else:
Even once their celebratory mood fades, the Red Sox still won't be in any hurry to extend Sale. He isn't slated for free agency until next winter.
If anything, now is arguably not the time to lock up the left-hander.
Though 2018 was a banner year for the seven-time All-Star in some respects—he set new career marks with a 2.11 ERA and 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings—it was his most challenging year in others. Most notably, he went on the disabled list twice with left shoulder inflammation in the second half of the season.
The 29-year-old wasn't the same after his second DL stint. His average fastball velocity and overall effectiveness dropped in September and October. A stomach ailment also forced a brief hospital stay that cost him a start in the American League Championship Series.
If Sale was a free agent right now under normal circumstances, his market value would be somewhere in the Max Scherzer/David Price neighborhood: seven years at $30 million a pop.
Under these abnormal circumstances, however, his market value would almost certainly be approached with more caution. Maybe less Scherzer/Price and more Jon Lester: six years at $25 million a pop.
When Sale and the Red Sox sit down to talk, it should be straightforward. Sale might accept a big payday now, or he may risk further injury for a bigger payday later. For the Red Sox, it would mean risking the big payday now and hoping to be rewarded with a pitcher worthy of an even bigger payday.
As far as Boston should be concerned, there's one reassuring thing about Sale's shoulder: It's still intact.
There's no way Sale would have been pitching at all in September or October if there was structural damage in his shoulder. Rust plausibly may be to blame for his issues. The four starts he made in September were basically a rehab assignment, and he struggled with his mechanics in one of them.
Sale's fastball sat at 93.3 mph in the playoffs, compared to 94.8 mph in the regular season. But he was able to reach back for 96-97 mph as needed, and he also threw some filthy sliders.
He was especially nasty when he struck out the side to close out Game 5 of the World Series:
It shouldn't be taken for granted that Sale's inevitable decline began with his shoulder woes. He could bounce right back in 2019, and more careful management of his workload could result in more of the same into 2020 and beyond.
If that happens, the Red Sox would get $30 million value out of a pitcher they extended for $25 million.
If not, the Red Sox would still have an insurance policy of sorts: Sale has proved he can pitch well without elite velocity.
As part of a deliberate experiment, Sale dropped his average fastball from 95.1 mph to 93.7 mph in his final season with the Chicago White Sox in 2016. He put up a 3.34 ERA over 226.2 innings anyway, and he didn't need to boost his velocity to finish strong in the K/9 department.
This speaks to what Sale has to lean on even if he's not throwing in the mid- or upper 90s. He can throw strikes with precision, and his four-pitch mix (four-seamer, sinker, slider, changeup) allows him to show hitters different angles and speeds.
Considering all of this, the only real danger of giving Sale a big-money extension would be a complete breakdown of his health. The potential reward should weigh at least as heavily for the Red Sox.
There's still the question of whether Sale is willing to sign a new deal now. He may prefer to bet on himself to have a huge walk year in 2019.
Or not. Sale has always sung his own kind of tune, up to and especially including when he was asked about his contract status on WEEI in February:
"I don't worry about that crap, honestly. I have one thing to do, right? Play baseball. Pitch. Be a good teammate. Those are all kind of all wrapped into one thing as what I am as a pitcher. I am not an agent. I am not an owner. I am not a general manager, so I know basically nothing about contracts. If and when that happens, all of them can take care of that. I am worried about baseball."
You'd think a guy who's been dramatically underpaid by his current contract (a five-year, $32.5 million deal signed in 2013) would be champing at the bit for more money. But Sale is Sale. He clearly prefers to keep his focus between the lines.
The only thing he and his representatives might insist on is an early opt-out, not unlike the one that Price declined to exercise Wednesday. Such things are standard nowadays, and the Red Sox can view it as a possible way out of Sale's true decline years.
All things considered, it's a logical time to make a deal. Sale and the Red Sox need only to come together to hammer it out.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.