'I've still got it in me': Finally healthy, Sale ready to compete

February 17th, 2024

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- ’s confidence certainly wasn’t shaken as he spent the past four seasons significantly limited by multiple injuries.

“I never don't feel like my old self. I've always been me,” Sale said. “My expectations don't waver. I expect to do what I've always done, which is compete to the highest level. I’m a little bit older, but I’ve still got it in me.”

This is exactly what the Braves were thinking when they acquired Sale from the Red Sox on Dec. 30. The left-hander produced Hall of Fame-caliber credentials as he finished among the top six in American League Cy Young Award balloting seven straight seasons (2012-18). But he has totaled 151 innings during this decade’s first four seasons.

Sale posted a 4.30 ERA over 20 starts for the Red Sox last year. Still, even with this promising stretch of good health, teams weren’t pursuing the 34-year-old lefty, whose contract at the time included a $27 million salary for 2024 and a $20 million option for 2025.

Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos got the Red Sox to include $17 million in the deal. He then created a new deal that will pay Sale $16 million this season and $22 million in 2025.

There’s certainly some risk given Sale’s recent health history. But the tremendous upside led another general manager to lament while telling Anthopoulos he hadn’t even thought about Sale as a trade option.

“We think the ability is phenomenal,” Anthopoulos said. “Everybody we have talked to who has been either a coach or a teammate around him has had just incredible things to say. You almost get more excited about acquiring [him] the more you hear about him.”

While being a great leader and teammate will provide value, the Braves need Sale to overcome the health struggles he's dealt with the past four seasons. The veteran pitcher’s elbow began bothering him late in the 2019 season and he had Tommy John surgery the following year, returned during the latter part of 2021 and then spent the next year riddled with misfortune.

Sale suffered a right rib stress fracture while throwing live batting practice at Florida Gulf Coast University. He fractured a finger when he was hit with a comebacker later that year. Then, while on the injured list, he fell off his bike and broke his wrist.

Just when it seemed like things were moving in the right direction last year, Sale missed two months with a shoulder ailment. But he gained encouragement as he posted a 3.92 ERA in the nine starts he made after rejoining Boston’s rotation in August.

Consequently, Sale went through this winter without any limitations. This was the first time he did that since the winter that followed him helping the Red Sox win the 2018 World Series. He has thrown bullpen sessions on a regular basis and regained the regular joy that existed before the injury bug struck.

“I love to compete, and baseball is fun again,” Sale said. “I’m really excited for this opportunity. It’s been a while since I’ve had the whole package of finishing healthy, having a normal offseason and coming into Spring Training healthy. So, all those things and being a little bit older and slightly smarter and with the staff here and the people I’m surrounded by, it’s going to give me the best opportunity I’ve had in a long time.”

Because Sale completed just 102 2/3 innings last year, he isn’t going to have the workload necessary to compete for a Cy Young Award this year. Instead, the focus will be on ensuring he stays healthy and strong for the postseason, during which his intense, competitive nature could prove to be quite valuable.

“He means business and he definitely has an edge to him,” Max Fried said. “He brings a presence that is intoxicating and you gravitate more to it. I’m glad to have him on my side.”

Fans have seen Sale’s intensity on the mound and they have heard about the time a season of unrest in the White Sox clubhouse led him to take scissors to a new set of jerseys. But for the most part, he is a mild-mannered individual, whose adrenaline just flows a lot more rapidly during competition.

“For the most part, I’m pretty laid back, except when I'm on a baseball field,” Sale said. “Being laid back in competition is never going to be good for you. So, I do get intense. I like to compete and I hate to lose.”