President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski didn’t ask any of the Red Sox players for their opinion when he started searching for a new manager last fall. He had hired six managers at various points of his 40-year career and knew the direction he wanted to go.
Dombrowski’s primary list of candidates all had either coached or managed at some level of professional baseball and he quickly settled on Houston Astros bench coach Alex Cora.
But his secondary list included several candidates without major league experience and Dombrowski was open to considering them, much as he did in 2013 when he hired Brad Ausmus to manage the Detroit Tigers.
Ausmus was 44 at the time and working as a special assistant to San Diego Padres general manager Josh Byrnes.
Dombrowski believed then, as he does now, that a younger manager made sense given the increasing number of young players in the game. Since 2004, the average age of major league players has decreased steadily.
For position players, it was 28.3 last season, a one-year drop since 2004. The Red Sox have experienced an even steeper decline. They went from 30.1 in 2011 to 28.4 last season.
As teams better understand aging curves, the value of younger players has increased. It’s better to get a talented player to the majors too early and finish the development process there instead of wasting one of his peak seasons in Triple A.
Xander Bogaerts played only 60 games for Triple A Pawtucket before he was called up in 2013.
Andrew Benintendi went from Double A straight to the majors in 2016. Last season, Rafael Devers played nine games for Pawtucket then was called up.
At the same time, tougher testing for PEDs and amphetamines served to decrease the value of older players.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be the manager, but at least the coaching staff has to understand you need to continue to develop players at the major league level,” Dombrowski said. “It’s of the utmost importance because we have so many younger players in the majors.”
When Dombrowski started his career in 1978, player development was a poorly funded afterthought for most teams.
“We barely had a pitching coach at every level and some levels didn’t have hitting coaches,” Dombrowski said. “Now you have video, analytics and all these resources we didn’t have in the past. I devote a lot of time to how we’re developing the players we have. You benefit as an organization if they’re on the major league roster at a young age.”
Ausmus lasted only four seasons with the Tigers, winning the AL Central in his first season, and losing 98 games in 2017. Older players were his undoing as Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez experienced sharp declines.
Cora inherited a different kind of team, one built around players in their mid-20s such as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi. J.D. Martinez, signed in February to supplement the lineup, is 30.
“We get players now and they aren’t finished products,’’ Cora said. “Our young talent is at the big league level. I’m comfortable with that.
“Just be myself. It’s easy with this group. I’m comfortable with who I am. I’m not going to change because now I’m a manager. Being myself is what got me this job.”
The Sox players didn’t influence the decision, but it was Cora who was their choice all along.
“Everyone was excited that he was the guy who got the job,” Brock Holt said. “When they made the move to get rid of [John] Farrell, I think everyone kind of had him in mind and we hoped he’d get the job.
“He brings a good energy and he’s easy to talk to. That is something you want as a player.”
That connection was something Dombrowski felt was missing last season. Jackie Bradley thought so, too.
“Respect is what I value,” the center fielder said. “Respect for a player in the sense that we are men, too. Being able to talk to us like men. It’s not you over me. We’re together. For us to do something great, we have to build and improve together.
“I want the manager to make sure everybody is on the same page. That is a big thing.”
Boston College coach Mike Gambino, a former Red Sox minor leaguer, understands how the game has changed.
His job is getting the best out of athletes who are 19-22 years old.
It’s similar to what Cora is trying to accomplish.
“You have to honest and upfront with them and let them know you care about them,” Gambino said. “We talk about who we want to be as a team. It sounds simple but that’s what it’s about. I talk to our guys more about who we want to be than what we want to do.
“If they know I care about them, they’ll care about our team. It sounds simple but when you spend as much time with your players as we do in baseball, it matters.”
Robby Scott, a lefthanded reliever, has played parts of two seasons in the majors. The 28-year-old doesn’t want to be coddled, but does want to know the manager beyond being asked how his arm feels before a game.
“Just be a regular guy who can hang out in the clubhouse and have that communication back and forth,” Scott said. “It can’t be just baseball.
“We all know how long the season is, there are ups and downs. You want to be able to carry on a conversation about whatever it may be. With a young team I think that’s even more important.”