A typical Major League Baseball season is filled with ebbs and flows, and the Boston Red Sox encountered their first bump in the road Wednesday when it was revealed Chris Sale will miss the start of the 2022 campaign due to a stress fracture in his right rib cage.
There already were questions surrounding Boston’s starting rotation — namely, who would join Sale, Nathan Eovaldi and Nick Pivetta in rounding out the unit. But Sale’s injury now represents the thickest layer of uncertainty, as the seven-time All-Star expected to be all systems go for Opening Day after missing a large chunk of 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“I’m like a dog on a chain right now,” Sale told reporters Wednesday in Fort Myers, Fla. “I can’t wait to get off this thing. You know, the last couple years have sucked and I’ve run into some pretty unlucky circumstances with arm troubles and then my neck and then this. But what can you do?”
The good news: This might not be a long-term issue for the Red Sox, despite an inexact timeline for his recovery. We’re still three weeks away from the regular season opener, and Sale, who believes he injured himself during a throwing session earlier this month, presumably will factor into Boston’s pitching plans at some point. Most broken ribs take about six weeks to heal, according to WebMD.
The bad news: Sale is one of the best pitchers in baseball when healthy. His absence leaves a huge hole in Boston’s rotation to open the season, and 13 of the Red Sox’s first 20 games are against their primary competitors in the American League East: the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays.
So, how will the Red Sox weather the storm?
Rich Hill and Michael Wacha — two offseason signings — seemed like logical candidates to follow Sale, Eovaldi and Pivetta in the rotation. Sale’s injury only increases the chances of both hurlers beginning the year as starters. The Red Sox then could use Garrett Whitlock or Tanner Houck as a traditional starter, or perhaps lean on one or both for bulk innings in tandem with an opener.
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom reiterated Wednesday the club intends to stretch out both Whitlock and Houck this spring.
“I don’t think we should change what we’re doing with them, because we need them available for this whole marathon,” Bloom said. “We talked about it with both of those guys. We want to get them stretched out as much as it’s responsible to do during this time and go from there. So if we were to try to push them beyond that, the worst thing we can do is set somebody back. So I don’t think it changes anything with them, but we were already optimistic that they’d be able to take on a lot of innings for us.”
The Red Sox’s depth options on the 40-man roster include Connor Seabold, Kutter Crawford and Josh Winckowski, all of whom are unproven at the major league level.
Theoretically, Sale’s injury could serve as extra motivation to add another starter, either via free agency or trade. But don’t expect a knee-jerk move.
“It’s always something we’re going to look for,” Bloom said, alluding to the leaguewide demand for starting pitching. “The nice thing about this is, this is really just a question of time. This is not something that — everything else he was doing great. It’s a bone, it needs to heal. We have to respect the time that that takes, and we’re fortunate to be in a better position with respect to internal depth than we’ve been in the past. But it’s always something that we’re looking to supplement. That’s actually why we went out and got some of the guys we did before the lockout, because we wanted to have different options, we wanted to have more guys in spots, so to speak.”
There aren’t many, if any, impact starters left in free agency, as Max Scherzer (New York Mets), Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers), Marcus Stroman (Chicago Cubs), Carlos Rodón (San Francisco Giants), Robbie Ray (Seattle Mariners) and Kevin Gausman (Blue Jays), among others, all are off the board.
Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea of the Oakland Athletics and Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle of the Cincinnati Reds are trade candidates based on their respective teams’ ongoing rebuilds, but dealing for any of those arms could prove too rich for an organization focused on strengthening its farm system.
All told, the Red Sox might just need to hold down the fort until Sale gets back. It’s not ideal, obviously, but we could learn a lot about this year’s team based on how it handles the sudden adversity.