Well, we avoided the worst-case scenario for Chris Sale, at least for now. Sale, who dealt with elbow issues that ended his 2019 season and necessitated multiple trips to Dr. James Andrews in the offseason, was diagnosed with a flexor strain in his left elbow Thursday, and will be shut down from throwing for a week.
Sale was already not expected to be ready for Opening Day while recovering from a bout of pneumonia earlier in the winter, and this makes it likely we won't see him until May, though no timetable has been announced as of yet. We'll get more news when Sale begins throwing again next week, though given that it represents a reset of his spring regiment — nearly four full weeks after pitchers and catchers report — you can see how it's not likely we'll see him on a major-league mound for at least a little while, assuming everything goes well.
And we can look back at history to see how likely it is that everything will go well. To help with that, I'll be referencing a study from 2017 entitled "Forearm Flexor Injuries in Major League Baseball Players: Epidemiology, Performance, and Associated Injuries". That study looked at flexor injuries from the majors and minors between 2010 and 2014, and found reasons to be optimistic, as well as concerned.
On the optimistic side, 80.6% of major-league pitchers did not require Tommy John surgery in the year after a flexor injury; however, there were 122 subsequent instances of shoulder, elbow, or forearm injury among the 134 players who suffered the initial injury — and interestingly, shoulder injuries were the most common. So, Sale would appear to be at an heightened risk for further injury in the future, though given how the last two years have gone for him, that kind of goes without saying. That's already priced into his Draft Day value, which will and should continue to fall.
How far it needs to fall remains the question. On Wednesday, I wrote about how the uncertainty surrounding the time between the initial injury and the official diagnosis creates a vacuum where Fantasy value can potentially grow, but now we know what Sale is dealing with, and in this case, while it's not the worst-case scenario, it brings plenty of concerns. And still quite a bit of uncertainty, as the data shows.
The average IL stint for players with this injury was 128.1 days, while the median was 42 days. What that essentially means is half of all pitchers who suffered this injury were back within 42 days, but the pitchers who missed more time than that tended to miss a lot more time. It's not quite an all-or-nothing injury, but it does mean that you probably shouldn't expect Sale back in the rotation before May and an absence reaching into the summer is very much in play if his elbow does not respond well over the next few weeks.
If you draft in this vacuum that will exist for the next few weeks, Sale is going to be one of the toughest players to figure out. Many drafters will take him off their boards entirely, and that's not an unreasonable response. He's dealt with elbow injuries for eight months without even pitching at full speed, so how is he going to fare when he's actually trying to let loose? It's a fair question, if an unanswerable one, and many will respond to that unknowability by ignoring Sale entirely.
I think that's a bad way to view things, however. You should have plenty of concern about Sale right now, obviously, but "concern" isn't a binary thing — where a player is either a concern or he isn't. The future is unknowable, and especially with pitchers, the difference between being a model of health and a significant risk is razor thin. You'll want to discount Sale, for sure, but taking him off your draft board would be a mistake.
There is still substantial potential here, and while I wrote Wednesday I would take him around 100 overall, given this diagnosis, I would push him down further than that, at least to the 130 overall range. That's where the likes of Dinelson Lamet and Jesus Luzardo are both being drafted these days, and that seems like a pretty good comp for Sale's 2020 potential: Both Luzardo and Lamet have top-15 potential, but both still have to prove they can do it at the major-league level after missing significant time in recent years with injuries of their own. Once you get into that Round 10-and-beyond range, you probably should expect about half of draft picks to bust. The future is, after all, unknowable, as someone very smart once said very recently.
If that's still too rich for you, I could see slotting Sale into James Paxton's tier, around 150th overall, or the Carlos Martinez/Lance McCullers range around 180 — though if that's where you have Sale, you aren't going to get him. Someone will take the chance earlier than that, for sure.
Sale could still work out in a big way for your Fantasy team. He could miss a month, come back, and be a dominant force for five, and that would be a big boost to your chances of winning a title. Ignoring that potential entirely doesn't make much sense.
So which sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Kenta Maeda's huge breakout last season, and find out.