The news isn't as bad as it could be for Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale, but it's far from encouraging.
On Monday night, Sale was scratched from Tuesday's start following what was first described as general arm soreness, but then became a "flexor muscle strain" following an MRI. The team White Sox have stressed that there's no apparent damage to the ligament, and they expect Sale to spend the minimum amount of time on the 15-day disabled list. We'll see if that's the case. It's certainly good news that there's no damage to the ligament at this time, but the history of "flexor tendon soreness" turning out to just be "flexor tendon soreness" isn't particularly good.
That's how Orioles pitching prospect Dylan Bundy started down his road toward Tommy John surgery. Stephen Strasburg, Scott Baker, Joel Hanrahan, Ben Sheets and others all had some form of mild soreness (not involving the ligament) in their throwing elbows right up to the moment that they had to schedule a surgery. In recent memory, the closest a pitcher has come to having this kind of injury and not having it end in disaster is Jason Grilli of the Pirates. Last season, Grilli went on the disabled list with a strained right flexor tendon in late July before coming back healthy and finishing out the season -- but he was gone for nearly six weeks, not 15 days. Hopefully for Sale, his injury is more in the vein of Grilli's than Bundy's. Still, the possibility of the White Sox having to at least walk back Sale's date of return remains significant.
Any missed time for Sale is bad news for the White Sox, as they discovered on Tuesday when Charles Leesman was called upon to make a spot start in place of the Chicago ace. Originally, the White Sox had thought about giving the start to Andre Rienzo. Rienzo, who is perhaps best known for being the headliner on Team Brazil in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, is one of the better pitching prospects remaining in the organization -- but since he'd thrown 26 pitches on Sunday, the team went with Leesman. Heading into Tuesday's game, Leesman had all of 15.1 major league innings pitched.
Against the Tigers, he lasted only 2 2/3 innings, giving up six runs on nine hits with no strikeouts and one walk. The White Sox are a team just starting to turn the corner back into respectable territory -- they don't have anywhere near the pitching depth to deal with a lengthy injury to Chris Sale. No. 2 starter Jose Quintana is a nice pitcher, but an anchor for the rotation he is not.
Right-hander Erik Johnson was the organization's No. 2 prospect coming into the season -- albeit in a weak system -- so if he was knocking on the door ready for a call-up, it would at least give the White Sox a chance to see what they had in him until Sale returned. But Erik Johnson is already on the big-league squad, as the White Sox chose to give the 24-year-old a spot in the rotation starting on day one of the regular season rather than pursue any free agent starter with a higher price tag than Felipe Paulino. In fairness to them, this was probably the right choice. Starting pitching is the most inefficient place to spend your dollars in free agency, and a team can easily blow nearly $100 million in current and future payroll obligations in one offseason without adding much more than marginal value (see: the 2014 Minnesota Twins). Still, that thins out the pitching reserves even more - though, given Johnson's start to the season (22.0 IP, 5.32 ERA, 17K, 11BB), it's possible he was never going to be the solution anyway. The next guy on the prospect list, Chris Beck -- at No. 9 on Baseball America's preseason org rankings for Chicago -- isn't projected to see major-league action until the middle of next year. They could rush him, sure, but that rarely works out for a guy who hasn't fully developed his off-speed pitches.
Where the White Sox go from here, of course, depends entirely on Chris Sale. Rienzo will likely make his season debut as a starter for the White Sox at some point over the next few days, and Chicago will be able to better evaluate what they have in the 26-year-old right-hander. But given that he has an ERA over four in the high minors and a not particularly impressive set of peripherals -- mainly due to a lack of great command or a change-up that can regularly fool big-league hitters -- it seems unlikely he's going to be the guy to come in and stabilize the rotation.
Honestly, if Sale misses an extended period of time, the White Sox just don't have a guy in the organization who can be that guy. Almost no organization would. Sale threw 214 1/3 innings of 3.07 ERA (138 ERA+) baseball last year. That sort of production can't be replaced without spending a lot of money or getting extremely lucky with the long-term development of an elite starting pitching prospect. The White Sox have neither of those things in great abundance, nor do they have the farm talent necessary to go out and get an impact starter on the trade market this summer unless someone's asking price really takes a tumble.
The only thing to do about Chris Sale, then, is let him rest and hope for the best. But given that he's a pitcher with an elbow injury, it's hard not to fear the worst.