Alex Cora was away from the Red Sox for less than 10 months, a relative speck of time in the history of a franchise.
But when he is reintroduced as manager on Tuesday afternoon, Cora will find a lot has changed around the team and little of it for the better.
The Red Sox had a $243.6 million luxury-tax payroll in 2019. It dropped by $45.2 million last season and is likely to go down even more as the Sox (and other teams) adjust to the revenues that vanished because of the pandemic.
History suggests the Red Sox will maintain one of the highest payrolls in the game, as they have for nearly two decades now. But buying their way out of every roster issue is a luxury they’ll have to live without.
There are only 14 players remaining on the 40-man roster who had a significant impact on the team from 2018-19. Cora inherits a much different team than the one he managed last.
It’s not just Mookie Betts. Jackie Bradley Jr., Heath Hembree, Brock Holt, Mitch Moreland, Rick Porcello, David Price, and Brandon Workman are gone, too.
It’s obvious they’re a much different team on the field without Betts, who could win another MVP on Thursday. But all those departures changed the clubhouse, too.
Betts helped set the right tone by how diligently he prepared for games and his commitment to finding ways to improve.
It was striking during the World Series to hear Dave Roberts, Clayton Kershaw, and other Dodgers talk about the leadership Betts provided being as impactful as his performance on the field.
“That focus and that consistency. I don’t know how much better it made other guys in this clubhouse, but I know it did,” Kershaw said.
While plenty of Red Sox fans won’t care to believe it, Price provided many of the same qualities within the pitching staff. Cora often said that when he needed to take the temperature of the clubhouse, Price was one of the first players he approached.
Porcello and Moreland were leaders, too. Bradley (who could conceivably return) and Holt also were building blocks in what was a good environment.
Xander Bogaerts has grown into more of a leadership role since 2019, but he’ll need others to join him and that is something Cora can cultivate.
The AL East has changed significantly. The Rays, with their base of young, cost-controlled talent, aren’t fading away after winning the pennant. The Yankees are always a concern and the Blue Jays returned to the playoffs with a young core of hitters and a solid rotation.
Cora also will have external issues that, while not necessarily affecting how he runs the team on a daily basis, will have to be handled.
Red Sox fans weren’t just upset the team finished last; many were indifferent. Upset is easily fixed by improving the team. Indifference takes more than that to cure.
Judging by reaction from fans via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and in person, the Sox have a bigger problem than they realize.
Raising ticket prices nine days after finishing in third place a year ago was a poorly timed decision that got worse when they traded Betts to cut the payroll less than four months later.
Injuries and COVID-19 cases decimated the pitching staff. But even had they not, the Sox were prepared to start the season with a rotation of Chris Sale, Nate Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, and assorted castoffs.
By the middle of August, poor Ron Roenicke often had no idea who was going to start the next day. It was embarrassing.
Cora also will have to find a way to reach out to a segment of fans who didn’t want him to return because of his prominent role in the Astros scandal.
I am an advocate of Cora returning and do not believe what he did rises anywhere close to the level of Pete Rose gambling on games or players using performance-enhancing drugs.
Every team works to steal signs from the catcher, usually by breaking down video of previous games.
The Astros pushed that effort far beyond the rules and deserved what happened. But those were not career-ending violations.
But there are people who disagree with that and Cora will have to deal with their vitriol. He arrived in Boston in 2017 as an overwhelmingly popular choice to replace John Farrell. That is not the case now.
And where is ownership in all this? John Henry, who also owns the Globe, made his last public remarks about the team Feb. 17. Tom Werner has been more accessible, but the Sox are pushing the idea that Chaim Bloom has the final decision on all baseball matters.
But Cora being back in the dugout is a good step in the right direction.
“A trabajar,” he posted in Spanish on Twitter when the news became official on Friday.
That means “to work” and there’s plenty of that to do.