The forecast for the home opener at Fenway Park calls for cloudy skies that could burst, a fitting metaphor for the left shoulder of Opening Day starter Chris Sale.
It undoubtedly qualifies as the most ominous of all issues for the 3-8 Red Sox, defending World Series champions.
Sale, according to brooksbaseball.net, has thrown 50 four-seam fastballs without a single swing-and-miss, a loud concern for a pitcher coming off a dominant season tainted by two late trips to the injured list because of shoulder inflammation.
The Red Sox have 145 million reasons to want to believe Sale’s shoulder is fine and the tests it underwent before the contract was finalized told the whole story.
But even on the sunniest of days, unless and until Sale can at least resemble the pitcher who has been the American League’s starter in each of the past three All-Star Games, the same questions will linger: Why the urgency to sign him now? Why not absorb a full year of data and then make the decision?
Sure, his price would have gone up from $29 million per year after a healthy season, but that sort of thinking is akin to going through life impulsively and without ever buying an insurance policy.
If Sale’s shoulder fails him this season, he is wildly overpaid and will put a drag on the payroll in the era of a salary cap masquerading as a luxury tax.
Why not take an almost-free look (except for the inflation viewed as an insurance premium by season’s end) first? A pen is more difficult to grip with crossed fingers, yet that didn’t stop the Red Sox, still in a euphoric state from the World Series. Hints that the Sox would not wait came right from the top and early in spring training when owners John Henry and Tom Werner candidly addressed Sale’s impending free agency.
“He’s healthy,” Henry said. “He had minor issues. They were able to take their time and give him some rest at one point, but he hasn’t had any significant shoulder issues, not significant.”
Seller’s remorse from a previous failure to lock up a top starting pitcher put Sox ownership in an emotional state of mind, not the dispassionate approach befitting decisions with long-term implications.
“I think we blew the Jon Lester (negotiations), we blew the signing in spring training,” Henry said.
At the time, the Sox banked on data that pointed to the dangers of signing veteran pitchers to long-term deals. In extending Sale, it seems, the Sox put too high a premium on letting one big fish get away.
“I think Chris falls out of the norm because he’s such a great, not just a great pitcher, but a great part of the team, as we saw in the World Series,” Henry said. “He had quite an impact just being on the bench in the World Series.”
See, even ownership is not immune to suffering from a World Series hangover.
The Red Sox have no shortage of explanations for Sale’s receding velocity, which floated around 90 mph in his second start. Heading into the season, the plan called for Sale to use far longer than spring training to build his arm strength/velocity.
So I suppose once the restrictor plate is removed, it’s not impossible for Sale to return to the pitcher who averaged 97 mph with his four-seam fastball last season.
If the slow-build approach works and results in the first successful title defense in 18 years, other organizations coming off of long postseasons will copy the world champions.
If Sale’s shoulder is to blame for the slowing fastball, clubs will become even more leery of granting long-term contracts to pitchers with shoulder woes, no matter how “minor.”
Sale’s overpowering fastball, elite secondary pitches and remarkable ability to locate have made him the league’s top pitcher. A sore shoulder can impact every one of those areas.
Again, why not wait until the end of the season?