Alex Cora sat home in Puerto Rico last season and found himself to be more of a spectator than a game planner. He was away from the game he loved, serving a one-year suspension for his role in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal of 2017.
He wanted to get back to managing but didn’t know when that opportunity would present itself — if ever.
The uncertainty, however, didn’t impair Cora’s baseball mind. In fact, in some ways, it enhanced it. The solitude allowed him to think about the game and the Red Sox on a grander scale.
For one thing, he noticed that the game was picking up speed.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, lacked it.
So when the club rehired Cora as manager this past November, that was an area he mentioned that had to improve, and one chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom did enhance. Bloom added Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, and Kiké Hernández.
“We’re moving forward,” Cora said recently. “And they really don’t care what happened the last few years here. They know they’re good players, they know what they want, which I think is a plus for the clubhouse.”
Other players such as Christian Vázquez and Michael Chavis arrived at camp in noticeably better shape. The Red Sox added speed on the pitching side, too, with high-velocity guys such as starter Garrett Richards and reliever Adam Ottavino.
Still, will all that even matter? Will the Red Sox be better than last year’s team that finished last in the American League East?
“We will be better than last year,” Cora said firmly. “Let’s get that one out of the way.”
It might be a low bar. The 60-game season of 2020 — in which the Sox went 24-36 — presented unique challenges in the face of COVID 19. The challenges are still there, but players are sort of used to that reality.
“We all know what it felt like to play 60 games in the middle of a pandemic last year, and it was stressful,” Bloom said. “I think it was stressful for everybody in this league, regardless of the quality of season.
“And I was actually really pleasantly surprised coming in here. How normal it felt in certain ways. How positive the vibe was. How everybody was getting after it every day with a sense of purpose.”
There’s no question that the Red Sox added depth. They added versatility at many positions and beefed up the pitching staff.
Eduardo Rodriguez appears to have returned to form after missing all of 2020, and Chris Sale is on target to join the team sometime this summer after he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Newcomer Richards believes the Sox might surprise some people.
“We’ve got dogs,” he said. “We’re out there to win. We’re all pushing for each other. It’s a tight-knit group.
“I think this is a team that’s going to be sneaky good. We don’t necessarily need everybody to talk about us. But we’ll be there in the end, I promise you that.”
Earlier in the spring, Rodriguez had a similar comment.
“When the lights go on, we’re going to show everybody what we got,” he said. “We’re going to be ready.”
‘“When the lights go on, we’re going to show everybody what we got. We’re going to be ready.”’
If you look around the American League, there’s a strong argument to be made that the competition has taken a step back.
In the AL West, the Astros aren’t the same team that dominated baseball for practically the last half-decade.
The White Sox are probably the most intriguing group in the AL Central. The Twins are intriguing, too, but there are questions surrounding their starting pitching. The Indians, meanwhile, are entering a rebuild of some sort, which became apparent with Francisco Lindor’s trade to the Mets.
The AL East remains one of the tougher divisions in baseball, but there might be a bit more wiggle room for the Sox this year. The Blue Jays added some talent in the field, but they, too, have questions surrounding their pitching staff.
The Rays are now without All-Star pitchers Charlie Morton and Blake Snell, who are both in the National League. Cora said the Rays will still have a good rotation. They are a team that finds wins within the margins, but in the same breath, starters — and reliable All-Star starters at that — aren’t easy to come by.
The Sox perhaps could make some noise in the division, which would make for an intriguing season. They’re depending on arms with upside, including Nick Pivetta and Richards, believing they have untapped potential that can be an asset. Martín Pérez proved himself to be a reliable starter last season. Nate Eovaldi, if healthy, can be dominant. The back end of the bullpen can be potent as well with Matt Barnes, Ottavino, and Ryan Brasier.
Certainly, the Red Sox will hit, and they have upgraded at first base by adding Bobby Dalbec, who should be in the running for Rookie of the Year. J.D. Martinez had some promising swings during spring training and the Sox are confident he can return to his old form. Tie that in with Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo, and Xander Bogaerts.
The outfield defense has taken a hit, yet the Sox still have an interesting bunch that should make for an exciting season.
“You see what we have, and we feel very comfortable, not only with the guys that we have at the big league level,” Cora said. “Chaim has done an amazing job adding talent. And we’re deeper than usual.”
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