The reasons for optimism continue adding up around Fenway Park.
Two and a half months into the season, the Boston Red Sox are in the thick of the American League East race, within striking distance of the first-place Tampa Bay Rays and comfortably ahead of the rival New York Yankees, the preseason favorite. Many of Boston's questions heading into the season centered around its rotation, led by Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez by pedigree, but anchored in performance for much of the season by Martin Perez, Nick Pivetta and Garrett Richards.
Underscoring the excitement around the 2021 team is the impending return of ace Chris Sale, who has not pitched in a game since August 2019. While Sale's role upon his return from Tommy John surgery remains unclear, the addition of a perennial Cy Young Award contender at midseason potentially represents a bigger addition than anything the team might add at the trade deadline.
Or, as Red Sox minor leaguer Connor Seabold put it on Twitter, "Boogeyman's coming."
"We are taking it day by day," manager Alex Cora said. "Let's see how he comes back tomorrow and we'll do the next thing that we have to do, but we're not even talking about how we're going to use him, where we're going to use him or when he's going to pitch."
Publicly, the Red Sox are taking things slowly, but the return of Sale and how well he can perform represents an undeniable X factor in the team's ambitions this season. According to front-office sources, the team views Sale playing a role in the team's push toward the playoffs. While Boston surprised many baseball observers out of the gate by thrusting itself into the conversation among the best teams in the sport, the addition of a pitcher of Sale's caliber could make the team an even more serious contender, if he can stay healthy.
While the back end of the rotation carried the pitching through the first two months of the season, the trio of Perez, Pivetta and Richards has come back down to earth a bit, with their ERAs all sitting above 4.00. Eovaldi leads the staff with a 3.76 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP and 1.6 WAR. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is struggling to the tune of a 6.21 ERA and minus-0.4 WAR in 13 starts.
Sale, and potentially calling up top outfield prospect Jarren Duran, could force other teams in the East and around the American League East to bolster their rosters. Tampa Bay lost its ace, Tyler Glasnow, to injury on Tuesday. While Boston could make some additions around the trade deadline, moving top prospects such as Duran, Jeter Downs and Triston Casas in favor of an all-in postseason run during the 2021 season appears unlikely.
"As much as we are in this for the long haul, every chance to make the postseason is important," chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said earlier this month. "We've talked about it going back to the offseason, that balance between now and the future, and as much as we can trying to do things to help us on both fronts. That's obviously hard to do. It's not that simple."
Sale threw off the mound at Fenway Park last Friday for the first time since undergoing surgery, but while Cora and company are trying to temper expectations, their enthusiasm after the session was undeniable.
"We need to try not to get too excited. He was that good," Cora said. "Just the energy and the quality of the pitches, the tempo, he looked really good. Really good. He said that's the best he's felt throughout the process."
Sale's effectiveness upon his return is not a given. New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard -- who underwent Tommy John surgery around the same time as Sale did in March 2020 -- needed to be shut down for six weeks in late May after inflammation emerged in his right elbow. For the time being, Sale appears to be on schedule to return sometime this summer after a bout with COVID-19 in January delayed his timeline.
Sale -- among the most competitive pitchers in the sport -- expects to return to top form upon his return to the mound.
"I expect to be myself, be the guy that I've always been," Sale said. "I just started throwing breaking balls and the first couple weren't pretty, but my expectation level was as high, if not higher than it's ever been."
Even though Sale could play a role in the team's march toward the playoffs, expect Boston to be cautious given the time remaining on his five-year, $145 million contract, which is set to expire after the 2024 season. FanGraphs' Steamer projections for 2021 suggest Sale returning for nine starts, posting a 3.21 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 1.06 WHIP with 11.9 K/9 across 52 innings.
Sale suggested an openness to a role in the bullpen if that meant skipping rehab starts and returning to the roster sooner.
"If they told me that we needed a guy in the bullpen or they wanted to build me up there instead of doing a rehab assignment, I would be game for that," Sale said. "The quicker that I can get back on this team, I would like that. That is way above my pay grade and where I'm at right now. I'm focused on my next day and getting off the mound, and then whatever the next step is, take that."
Sale defines his rehab process -- which continued with a session in the Triple-A Worcester Red Sox bullpen on Tuesday -- as the "hardest challenge I've had in my life" and said that "there's been some really good days, there's been some good days, there's been some s--- days."
Now more than a year removed from the procedure, Sale is beginning to turn the page to the next phase of his career.
"I've been able to let go of the fact that I have a huge scar on my arm and it was cut open 15 months ago," Sale said. "When I'm throwing, I feel normal. I feel like how I did when I was a kid. I don't have this thought in the back of my mind about the surgery on any given throw or anything ... I feel like I'm starting to build up as a pitcher as opposed to on the back of a rehab. I don't feel like I'm rehab-throwing. I feel like I'm pitching-throwing.
"If it was up to me," Sale said, "I'd be starting tomorrow."