Tomase: See you later, Chris Sale -- why Red Sox should let their ace walk in free agency

John Tomase
January 02, 2019 - 1:01 pm
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When last we saw Chris Sale, his shoulder might as well have been cast in titanium. The lanky left-hander blew away the Dodgers with a vintage World Series clincher.

He struck out the side on a mix of 96 mph fastballs and wipeout sliders, dropping Manny Machado to one servile knee to deliver the Red Sox their fourth title since 2004 with a 5-1 victory.

If you hadn't watched any baseball since July, you wouldn't have blinked. The Sale who mowed down the Dodgers like the priciest piece of equipment in the John Deere catalogue looked no different than the Cy Young favorite who earned his third straight All-Star start.

The rest of us know better. Sale's shoulder rendered him effectively unusable for the final two months of the season, and then pedestrian in the playoffs. The Red Sox carefully managed even his final appearance, with pitching coach Dana LeVangie telling WEEI.com after Game 5 that Sale wouldn't have pitched in a close game.

"There was a run differential we wanted to respect," LeVangie said. "We weren't going to send him out there with a two-run lead. We wanted to make sure there was some leverage for us."

As we turn our attention to Sale's 2019, the idea of leverage is a good place to start. His team-friendly contract expires next fall, which means the Red Sox face the monumental decision of whether to extend their ace or let him depart in free agency.

Based on what we've seen over the last two years, the decision should be easy -- let him walk. Even pitchers with track records of durability have proven to be dicey propositions once they hit 30, and we needn't look far for an example, because David Price says hello.

Sale's brittleness is well-established. Were the Red Sox out of the playoff hunt, we probably wouldn't have seen him at all in August or September. His 2018 disappearing act came on the heels of a 2017 that saw him fade like a shanked field goal before the Astros tagged him for four home runs in the ALDS.

His two worst ERAs by month are August (3.16) and September (3.78), and he owns a losing record lifetime after Sept. 1 (12-18, including postseason).

That's convincing evidence of a pitcher who wears down as the season wears on, and he turns 30 this March. If you want to bet on Sale suddenly figuring out how to stay healthy for 162 games as he departs his 20s, head on down to Twin River, but that's a wager I'd decline.

Of course, it's easy for me to say hit the road rather than tie up $200 million in a bum shoulder. Evaluating free agents isn't simply an objective endeavor, no matter how man spreadsheets the analytics department produces. Subjectively, it's hard for a team without a clear replacement atop its rotation to watch an ace walk when all it would take to keep him is money.

It's not like *every* 30-year-old flames out. Max Scherzer joined the Nationals at that age in 2015 and has merely delivered two Cy Young Awards and a second-place finish since. He turned 34 this year and struck out a career-high 300.

Old friend Jon Lester joined the Cubs that same winter at age 31, finished second in the 2016 Cy Young voting, and just led the National League in wins at age 34. If the Red Sox could take him back, they would.

But they're the exceptions, and betting on the exceptions is bad business. Tim Lincecum won two Cy Youngs by age 25 and was basically cooked two years later. Three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw looked mortal this year at age 30. The Cubs gave 32-year-old Yu Darvish a six-year contract last winter and watched him blow out after eight starts.

Sale will be the ultimate litmus test of president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who adeptly built a juggernaut by executing a vision for making the Red Sox instant contenders at the expense of the future. After 108 wins and a championship, he'll get no argument here (anymore).

But building the next great Red Sox team will require more of a ground-up approach. The incredible farm system Dombrowski inherited is gone. Difficult decisions loom not just with Sale, but across the roster, where Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Rick Porcello, and J.D. Martinez will hit the market over the next two years.

If Dombrowski is thinking long-term, then Sale is an easy pass. History makes him a bad risk for a monster contract, even if it includes the three-year opt-out that everyone assumed would keep Price from seeing the completion of his $217 million deal. It's a credit to Price's competitiveness that he salvaged what looked like an albatross of a contract with a narrative-altering postseason, but let's not forget that the first three years of his eight-year pact were supposed to represent the high-water mark before his inevitable decline, and he spent at least half that time underachieving or injured.

Sale represents a far riskier proposition. His greatness when healthy is unquestioned. There's no one in baseball I'd rather have through July.

The problem is, the best teams end their seasons in October. And if the Red Sox are going to pay someone $30 million a year, it should be with the expectation that they won't have to let the game conditions dictate if it's safe to throw the biggest inning of the season.

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