For some time, Alex Verdugo’s future with the Red Sox has seemed tenuous.
In four seasons since the Sox acquired him as the centerpiece of the deal sending Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, team officials haven’t approached him about an extension, a stance that suggests his residence with the club has an end point. Manager Alex Cora has been open about the ongoing need to push a wildly talented outfielder to reach for his highest level.
But on Saturday, after the Red Sox suffered a gutting 5-4 loss to the Blue Jays at Fenway Park that left them four games out in the wild card race, it became clear that the thin ice upon which Verdugo sometimes skates may be melting.
In its own right, Cora’s benching of Verdugo on Saturday didn’t represent a shocking development. Already this year, Cora had the talented 27-year-old sit for a game in June for a failure to hustle. More recently, Cora gave Verdugo two straight days off in late July to clear his mind amid a lengthy slump.
But Saturday was different. Roughly two hours before game time, Verdugo was pulled from the Sox lineup in favor of outfielder Adam Duvall.
The move was made due to what Cora described tersely after the contest as a “manager’s decision” — one not motivated by fielding the best team. (Jays starter José Berríos is lethal against righthanded hitters.) There was nothing health-related or baseball-related underlying the decision.
Cora expressed an unprecedented public level of dissatisfaction with his outfielder.
“I decided not to play [him],” Cora said. “I think today we took a step back as a team. We have to make sure everybody’s available every single day here for us to get to wherever we’re going to go. And that wasn’t the case. And as a manager, I’ve got to take charge of this and I decided he wasn’t gonna play.”
“I’m very disappointed,” Cora added. “This is probably one of my worst days here in this organization.”
Both player and manager said the benching was unrelated to Cora’s decision to pinch-hit for Verdugo against a lefty on Friday night.
Verdugo — who at times in his Red Sox career has been late for different aspects of pre-game preparations — said he was on time to the ballpark Saturday. But according to a major league source, Verdugo was late to Fenway, arriving roughly two hours before the 4:10 p.m. first pitch — long after the required reporting time.
Verdugo said he accepted responsibility for his benching.
“It’s a manager’s decision and I respect his decision. He’s the jefe,” said Verdugo. “I take responsibility . . . As a player, I want to play. I want to be out there every day. And today was a little bit hard to watch.
“I’ve got to be better and I expect more from myself,” Verdugo added. “I expect to be more alert, understanding of the game, what’s going on, reading the pitchers, seeing how they’re working the hitters, just more in tune with the game and in tune with everything. I feel like I’ve been kind of battling myself a little bit. So it’s time to just kind of stop battling myself and go battle the pitcher.”
But for how much longer will the Red Sox live with the Faustian bargain of trying to benefit from what Verdugo can do when focused rather than creating headaches for his team?
The first half of this year showed the type of player Verdugo can be. Through June 21, with occasional prodding from Cora, he was hitting .303/.374/.468 while playing elite defense in right, a lineup constant who played through any circumstance, and arguably the team’s most consistent contributor.
Over the last five weeks, however, he’s hitting .174/.255/.296 with an uncharacteristically high 24 percent strikeout rate. He’s looked lost at times at the plate, with multiple scouts in advance of the trade deadline describing him as “checked out.”
The Sox have spent four years hoping that Verdugo would emerge as a well above-average contributor. The totality of his work has been that of a roughly average player whose commitment to surpass that standard — particularly with his pre-game work — has repeatedly been questioned.
In June, Verdugo seemed proud of the idea of putting some of those concerns to rest. But on Saturday, to borrow Cora’s phrase, he took a step back, in a way that inevitably clouds his future.
The Sox have always been open to discussing any player in a trade. But multiple rival evaluators described the Sox as surprisingly proactive in exploring Verdugo’s trade value both last offseason and at this year’s trade deadline.
In both instances, the team couldn’t find a deal to motivate them to trade Verdugo. But with heightened frustration about his commitment to the team at a crucial stage of the season, it’s not hard to imagine the Sox taking a different course this winter, when Verdugo will have one remaining year under team control before becoming eligible for free agency after 2024.
That notion seemed like subtext — intentional or not — as Verdugo twice mentioned the remaining duration of the season.
“Got seven weeks left to end this on a high note,” he said.
“I’ve got to be better and I expect more from myself,” he later added. “Just go out there and finish the seven weeks strong. Play hard, show up every day, and just be ready to go.”
He failed at those basic requirements on Saturday, in a way that raised questions about whether the next seven weeks will be his last as a member of the Red Sox.