With each new injury, Chris Sale sounds a familiar refrain: he hates not earning his money.
And it’s a lot of money, too. Since signing a five-year, $145 million extension that kicked in just in time for him to miss all of 2020 and most of 2021 following elbow surgery, Sale has battled a neck strain, COVID, a broken rib, a broken pinky, and his latest misfortune, a season-ending broken wrist after he fell off a bike over the weekend.
Sale has made no secret of his frustration, especially since the Red Sox guaranteed him an average of $29 million a year in 2019. As recently as spring training, he described his feelings thusly:
“I have more teammates picking up my slack, doing my job, and I’m getting paid to do nothing,” he said. “That sucks, and I’m not afraid to say it. That’s who I am and that’s what I believe.”
Sale has voiced some variation on the theme before, saying it sucks to watch everyone else bust their butts while he sits on the sidelines; he hates letting his teammates down; he believes in earning his salary.
Well it turns out there’s a way for Sale to put about $55 million of his money where his mouth is, if he really believes he hasn’t held up his end of the bargain: opt out of his contract this fall.
Sale’s opt-out hasn’t been feverishly speculated over like Xander Bogaerts’ this year or J.D. Martinez’s throughout his entire Red Sox tenure, and for obvious reasons. Sale has barely pitched. Since 2020, he has made just 11 starts. With the news that his 2022 is officially over, he ends the campaign having thrown a grand total of 5.2 innings.
These are not the circumstances under which a player would normally ever opt out. I certainly wouldn’t if I were in Sale’s shoes, especially since he was so underpaid for the first half of his career when he routinely started All-Star Games and once even struck out 300 batters. The $145 million he’s making now just balances the scales against the five-year, $32.5 million extension he signed at the start of his career with the White Sox in 2013.
And yet … Sale is a different cat. When he talks about earning his money, he certainly sounds like he means it. And he’s right that the Red Sox have paid him to do nothing not just this year, but really the last three years. All they have to show for their investment thus far is an 8.00 ERA in three playoff appearances and a bunch of press conferences bemoaning his various maladies.
His agent would probably pitch a fit alongside the Players Association, but if Sale wants to back his words with actions, the mechanism is there. Opt out of his deal, leave the final $55 million on the table and either re-sign with the Red Sox for less, or hit free agency, where he’d probably fetch a one-year make-good deal. With incentives, it might match the $21 million the Angels gave Noah Syndergaard in his first full season back from Tommy John before trading him to the Phillies last week.
It’s easy to sound sanctimonious about this, so don’t misinterpret my tone. I’m taking him at his word when he says he feels like he’s stealing money. I wouldn’t even consider floating the possibility for any other player in baseball, and I wouldn’t actually expect Sale to follow through, either. Baseball salaries are guaranteed for a reason.
But he’s the one player I could actually see at least entertaining the thought. I’d put the odds at non-zero, because I believe him when he says it eats him up not to earn his money.
There’s nothing stopping him from proving it.