Chris Sale injury leaves Red Sox with more questions than answers entering 2020

John Tomase

BOSTON -- Chris Sale's 2018 ended with his hands thrust overhead in Dodger Stadium. His final act of 2019 was to run those same hands through his hair in the Red Sox clubhouse with six weeks of baseball remaining.

Whatever uncertainty clouded his future following last season, it's nothing compared to the winter that awaits. At least last year, Sale had just dropped Manny Machado to one knee to lift the Red Sox to a championship before embarking on an offseason of rest and recovery.

This year, it's not even September and Sale has almost certainly thrown his final pitch of 2019. He just returned from a visit to Pensacola, Fla., where he received the relatively good news from Dr. James Andrews that he's merely experiencing inflammation in his left elbow and won't need Tommy John surgery.

He'll shut it down for four to six weeks before being reevaluated. The upper end of that timeline takes him right through the conclusion of the regular season and it's hard to imagine the Red Sox pulling off a miracle run to the playoffs without him.

And so ends his 2019 with a lot more questions than answers.

"Everyone talks about last year being a dream season," Sale said. "Personally, this has been kind of a nightmare season."

The real nightmare for the Red Sox will be trying to figure out exactly what they can expect from their ace when next season opens. Sale expressed confidence that he'll be ready for spring training -- "I have no doubts in my mind" -- which sounds nice, but how can he know?

Sale received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow to promote healing and suggested he won't throw until his checkup next month. With the Red Sox out of contention and Sale's five-year, $145 million extension officially kicking in next season, there's no need to rush him back to a mound.

It's possible his follow-up will show more damage than expected, in which case we'd have some clarity on his future. Still, assuming he's told to continue rehabbing, we won't know what 2020 holds until pitchers and catchers arrive in Fort Myers next February.

In the meantime, the Red Sox will have to address holes in their rotation, and it would certainly be nice to know what role Sale will play. Is he going to be an ace or a $150 million drag on the payroll? What's to say we don't end up repeating this dance next year?

"Obviously, I think we've got some things to look at as a whole and try to figure out if there was something that I was doing different, but if anything, I felt like I was back to normal the last few starts, which was encouraging," Sale said. "Then this happens. I go through today, once today is over, we get to tomorrow and do that thing. I'm just trying to slow this down as much as possible. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, I don't want to rush anything. I want to make sure what's going on is right and to get this thing ready to go."

History is littered with great pitchers who hit a rough patch and never recover, like two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. Still, there are also plenty of examples of greats who overcome one bad season to regain their prior form, with Justin Verlander the latest example.

Which way Sale goes could determine the future of the organization.

"You look at any pitcher in the big leagues, there's going to be some times where they have a down year, they get hurt, especially as the workload picks up and you start racking up some innings," Sale said. "It's just the culmination of a lot of things coming to the front right now. I'll work through it, deal with it, keep my chin up, keep working, lean on my teammates and family for support and these guys in the training room and we'll get through this.

"It's not the end of the world. It could be worse. That's the mindset I'm going to take through this, it can always be worse. I'll do everything I can to get back on that field as soon as possible and pitch like I'm expected to pitch."

See you in 2020, when hopefully we get some answers.

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Chris Sale injury leaves Red Sox with more questions than answers entering 2020 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston