Even as the Rays selected Josh Sale 17th overall in the 2010 MLB Draft, they knew about his flaws. He wasn’t too fast or athletic and would likely be limited to left field in the long term. At the same time, though, he stood out significantly for his ability at the plate, showing outstanding bat speed, big-time power, and great plate discipline, and the Rays believed that his bat would carry him to a productive major league career. They had to be a little more confident thanks to Sale’s great work ethic that tied his entire game together. But all of that quickly come apart.
In his pro debut in 2011 at Rookie-level Princeton, Sale’s limitations were as present as ever and his perceived strengths did not show up. He managed just a .210/.289/.346 line with 11 doubles, 4 homers, and 15 RBI in 239 plate appearances. Sale showed solid plate discipline and made a good amount of contact, striking out 41 times (17.2% of his PA’s) compared to 23 walks (9.6%) but he didn’t hit the ball with any authority at all and it seemed increasingly likely that he would turn out to be a bust. But everything changed in early May, when Sale impressed the Rays enough in extended spring training to get promoted to Low-A Bowling Green. And as soon as he arrived, Sale finally started living up to all the hype, managing a .368/.500/.807 line with 7 homers, 4 homers, 18 RBI, 4 stolen bases, and 15 walks against 13 strikeouts in 20 games and 76 plate appearances.
The rest of the season did not treat Sale as kindly, but he still showed some promise, managing a .231/.353/.357 line with 3 homers, 6 doubles, 26 RBI, 3 stolen bases, and a 49-36 strikeout to walk ratio in 54 games and 221 plate appearances. But in a moment, everything came crashing down again. Sale tested positives for methamphetamine and an amphetamine, leading to a 50-game suspension through the end of the 2012 season and the first month of 2013. The ability that he displayed was brought into serious question and once again the Rays could not be sure of what they had in Sale. Nevertheless, there a cautious optimism among Rays officials after just how good Sale had looked and because they were confident that Sale’s suspension would be an isolated incident since he was so renowned for his makeup. There was clearly more work to do with him, but he was expected to return to action and continue developing his game and making up for his lost time both from his suspension and his poor debut. But then the latest bombshell dropped.
Sale was just about to return from his suspension when he got sick, delaying his return by a few days. That was no big deal and the Rays just wanted him to return at full strength. But right before he was finally going to come back, Sale posted on Facebook about throwing change at a stripper. The Rays proceeded to suspend him indefinitely for his idiotic mistake. The Rays gave Sale some leeway for his rough start and even for his suspension. In this case, though, what Sale had done was inexcusable and now the Rays’ patience with him has all but run out.
Before the draft, Baseball America said that “Scouts rave about Sale’s makeup and work ethic.” What happened? Were the scouts flat-out wrong? That is a possibility, but maybe the lesson here is that “makeup” and “work ethic” are two vastly divergent things despite how often we like to lump them together for prospects. Work ethic is how a player keeps improving–character is how he reacts when everything goes wrong. It’s much easier to work out when you’re playing well and want nothing more than to get into the weight room and keep it up. That was the case for Sale in high school before he was drafted. Since then, we have seen more and more how Sale’s apparent lack of character has torn his career apart. Baseball America said about Sale’s 2011 season that he had to “rededicate himself to the game” to get back on track. Then in 2012, he resorted to drugs, whether for performance-enhancing or recreational purposes, earning himself a suspension in the process.* And now we’re seeing what happens when he gets away from the game for too long, finding himself stuck in a place where his work ethic means little and his mental toughness is the only thing that matters as he tries to survive and come back from the suspension. The buildup was slow and insidious, bringing Sale’s career along a path a ruin, and even now we can’t be sure that he has hit rock bottom.
Josh Sale remains an immensely talented baseball player and the Rays can still hope that he can overcome all these mistakes to make the major leagues. But you can’t use “isolated incident” to refer to something that has now happened twice and Sale may never get beyond the assumptions people will make about him after everything he has done. If Sale really has that makeup scouts couldn’t get enough of, it’s time for him to start showing it. The hole he’s digging for himself is getting deeper and deeper, and who knows whether he’ll ever do enough to escape it.
*It’s worth noting that Sale denied the allegations all the way through and they were especially surprising considering his father prides himself on being one of the few weightlifters to not use performance-enhancing drugs. Sale wound up sayIng that he would accept the suspension in respect of the integrity of the Minor League Baseball testing system. Four of Sale’s Bowling Green teammates also tested positive and some people believed that maybe Sale’s positive test was completely intentional. But after this latest incident, it’s almost impossible to give him the benefit of the doubt.