To be honest, and I'm probably not alone, I expected Josh Sale to be back by now. On May 29th, he was suspended by the Rays for conduct detrimental to the organization. That came after Deadspin brought to light this incident that is quite embarrassing for Sale and the organization. The length of the suspension would indicate this wasn't an isolated incident, and his conduct must've been troubling to the Rays for a while. We're coming up on three months though. Where is he?
The reality is, his career has been almost a constant disruption. He was drafted on June 7th 2010, the first of three days in the 2010 draft. Instead of signing soon after and reporting to Charlotte to start his career with the GCL Rays, it took until August 16th for him to sign (at the time, baseball's deadline was August 15th, but the 15th fell on a Sunday in 2010.) This responsibility doesn't all rest on Sale; he could have accepted an offer of $1.62 million from the Rays an hour after the draft, but because it was an overslot deal, Bud Selig's office may have prohibited him from signing until the deadline.
At that point, there were only 12 games left in the GCL Rays' regular season (plus four playoff games they would participate in.) Because of the late signing though, the Rays opted to not start Sale's career until instructional league. That was their decision, and it did cost him an opportunity to play. Sale was one of 15 high school hitters drafted in the first round in 2010, and he was only one of two who did not get any experience in the half season of being drafted. The other? Drew Vettleson. Vettleson also didn't sign until the 16th, but the group of 13 players who did play did include four players who also waited until the deadline to sign.
2011 was a bit of a normal year for Sale. He started the season in extended spring training and reported to Princeton in June where he played a reasonable 60 out of 68 possible games. If he was injured at all, he never missed more than a day or two in a row. That would put him on pace to play 143 games on a major league schedule which is quite reasonable for an everyday player. If there was any reason to give him a day off, it would probably be a mental day since he slumped most of the season.
Unfortunately, that has been the only season of Sale's that came without interruption. He apparently was not ready to start the season in Bowling Green, so he again stayed behind in extended spring training. He would make his Hot Rods debut on May 5th, and after about two weeks of hot play, he missed a week of games without going on the DL. In July, he wasn't quite as lucky and did go on the DL for about 10 days. Then, at the end of August, it was announced he would be suspended for 50 games under baseball's drug policy, and that carried over into May, just before his team-issued suspension began. It breaks down like this:
That is staggering. Most of the damage comes during this lost 2013 with the pair of suspensions, but for whatever the reason, I can't imagine a player developing as best he can only playing in 39% of his possible games. These are numbers that are probably in line with Donavan Tate's. Tate was drafted third overall by San Diego in 2009, and his career has paralleled Sale's in some ways. Injuries have regularly sidelined him, and he also had to sit out a 50 game suspension. Tate seemed to be semi-retired from baseball to start 2013, but he eventually reported to Padres extended spring training and is now playing in the Northwest League. Tate was drafted a year before Sale though. How does Sale compare to his 2010 peers?
Plate appearances here are cumulative for each season. Sale and Vettleson start behind everyone else, but thanks to his durability, Vettleson has essentially caught up to the average now three years after being drafted. Sale has not been as fortunate. If not for Ryan Bolden's retirement, Sale would easily be last here. He's nearly 800 plate appearances behind the average player at this point, certainly more than a season's worth of trips to the plate. There is no magic number of plate appearances for a prospect to be ready. A player to get there as quickly as Manny Machado and even Christian Yelich is rare. Here's a graphical look at the trio of Rays, the average and selected other players:
I thought the chart got a bit too messy with all 15 players, so I cut some of them out. The dots should also make the trio of Rays and average stand out a bit more compared to the rest. As recently as 2012, all three Rays were below the average. In O'Conner's case, he continues to lag behind because it took an extra year for him to reach full-season ball. Every player on the chart has reached a full-season league at this point besides the now retired Bolden.
It's hard to see where Sale goes from here. The Rays could send him to the Arizona Fall League to try and make up some of the missed time against competitive pitching, but since he's never played above low-A, he could be in over his head out there. 2000 minor league plate appearances seems to be a point in which prospects drafted out of high school are sometimes ready for the majors (B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings both had over 2000, and Wil Myers was a little short), and it'll take Sale at least two more seasons to accumulate that many. The question is whether he can do that without injury or any other interruption.