The big question we ask about the 2019 season is how can the Red Sox repeat as World Series champions? Manager Alex Cora doesn’t have all the answers, but he expects improvement in the overall play of at least five players who could take the next step in their careers. Cora refers to Eduardo Rodriguez, Rafael Devers, Blake Swihart, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi in that regard.
I asked Cora whether he thought Rodriguez could fulfill the expectations of possibly being a No. 1-type starter?
“Stuff-wise he’s better than all of our guys,” Cora said. “I still believe that he wants to be David Price and I guarantee David Price wishes he can be Eduardo Rodriquez. David is very much in awe of his stuff so I think it’s something that we will hammer him on with the understanding that if you use these pitches in these spots you’ll be great. And he did start to do that actually out of the bullpen in the playoffs. He started pitching up in the zone and throwing changeups.”
As an example of a learning moment for E-Rod, Cora pointed to the Gary Sanchez home run in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Yankees.
“It was a fastball down in the zone on a 2-1 count and he’s got probably one of the best fastballs up in the zone in the league,” said Cora. “And he has one of the best changeups in the league and he didn’t use it. After that he learned.
“I talked to him. I said, “Dude, it’s very simple for you out of the bullpen: Up and down. Up and down. So then he faced them in Game 3 in New York and he threw [Sanchez] like five changeups in a row and he got a couple of swings and misses and [got him to ground out].”
On Devers, Cora said he’s not making predictions after doing so last offseason, during which he predicted 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
“I think we didn’t help with that,” Cora admitted. “Expectations were high and I think he was thinking about the numbers early in the season. Going to Triple A for that rehab assignment was big for him. I didn’t rush him back. It was a great learning experience for him. I mean, obviously the player has to agree, and he was all in. He wasn’t even close with his body as far as like being healthy, but to get at-bats down there and then to come here and just be a part of it was terrific.
“Eduardo [Nunez] was playing great. We had Brock [Holt]. So, I don’t think he was expecting at-bats. He was just happy to be here and then little by little he started getting at-bats and then you could see that he was able to slow it down, not chasing too many pitches up in the zone. He played great defense in October, made some nice plays and . . . he’s not afraid of the big stage.
“I saw that last year when I was with Houston. And then in October he really enjoyed the moment. I think there was only one game that the game sped up on him. It was Game 3 [of the World Series] that I pinch hit for him because they brought in [Pedro] Baez. In that game he was back to chasing pitches. The body language, too, like shaking his head. But he’s going to be a good player. I hate to compare with other players but I think the third baseman for the Yankees, [Miguel] Andujar. He’s older than Raffy, but they’re very similar offensively.
“I think Raffy grew up a lot. And now in the offseason he has his program. He’s actually going to spend time in Miami with J.D. Martinez. And they’ll keep working on his swing.”
Can Swihart become a No. 1 catcher?
“I mean, we’ve got three great catchers,” said Cora. “From everything I heard about Blake not being a good defender — he is actually a good defender. I mean, he threw out what? Like five out of six. And he blocked better and he bought into the reports and using the [analytic] information to our benefit.
“Offensively it wasn’t fair for him this year. He feels that he lost it righthanded. We’ll see where we’re at, but yeah, he’s capable. We’ll see where we go in the offseason. We’ll sit down and talk about players in the upcoming weeks and all of that, but I see him, too, as someone who can play first and he can play the outfield. I didn’t take advantage of him as much as I should have this year.”
Cora also believes the best is yet to come from Bradley.
“I think he found his swing,” Cora said. “He now understands more about his mechanics and what he can do at the plate. If he is as consistent as he was in the second half, that’s a monster year. That would be fun. We talked about it as a group and we said, ‘Can you imagine if Jackie and Raffy keep swinging the bat the way they did for a full season?’ ”
What about Benintendi and his power numbers, which included 16 homers?
“That was weird. I read he only hit two after the All-Star break. But with him, he’s the total package and he can hit for average. He can be a lot better than .280, .285,” Cora said of the left fielder, who actually hit .290. “With that swing, I don’t want to say batting title, but he will be hitting over .300 and getting on base at a high clip.
“At one point his on-base percentage was right there in the .400s [he finished at .366, 29th in the majors], which is great for us. But at one point he was in the top 10 in OPS [he finished 38th at .830]. So I don’t know if he got caught up in the whole trying to lift the ball. I don’t know, but when he hits the ball the other way he’s one of the best hitters in the big leagues. And also, defensively he grew up throughout the season. He played a great left field. We were able to push him off the left field line because he can get to that ball down the line. He was really good.”
Apropos of nothing
1. For those who believe Alex Cora should have been Manager of the Year, here’s a major reason he wasn’t. Voters tend to have a bias against high-payroll teams. When Boston’s payroll was at $234 million and Oakland’s was at $66 million, who had the tougher task? Cora won 108 games, but A’s manager Bob Melvin won 97 games with such a low payroll, which usually means there’s no way he had the roster depth the Red Sox had. Melvin did a great job. Go back to Terry Francona, who despite two World Series rings with the Red Sox never won the award until he got to smaller-market Cleveland.
2. MLB’s Competition Committee was surely delving into the whole idea of reducing or modifying defensive shifting at the annual owners’ meetings this past week in Atlanta. It’s been a hot button issue around baseball. Let’s see what they come up with. Any reduction of shifting would be popular among players.
3. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo surrounds himself with superb scouting to go along with his analytics department. He hit another home run recently when he hired former Marlins scouting director Jim Cuthbert to the advance scouting position. Cuthbert had also served as Francona’s advance scout in Cleveland and was an instrumental part of the Indians’ success.
4. New Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias would do well if he could come up with a scout with Bobby Heck’s acumen and experience. Heck, currently a special adviser with the Rays, was the scouting director in Houston from 2008-12 and made the decisions to draft Jason Castro, Jordan Lyles, J.D. Martinez, Delino DeShields Jr., Mike Foltynewicz, Dallas Keuchel, Vincent Velasquez, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Preston Tucker. After Heck left Houston for the Rays, the Astros stumbled with first overall picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts — Mark Appel and Brady Aiken. The Astros pulled out of the Aiken deal after an elbow problem surfaced.
5. It will likely be up to the Lerner ownership whether the Nationals up their offer to Bryce Harper from 10 years, $300 million. They’re likely waiting to see what other offers might be before countering. If they opt to let Harper go elsewhere they’ll likely devote that money toward signing a veteran pitcher such as Keuchel and/or trade for a catcher such as Miami’s J.T. Realmuto. The Marlins have experienced the same problem with Realmuto as they did with NL MVP Christian Yelich a year ago; suitors tend to take their best two or three prospects off the table. The Brewers landed Yelich because they didn’t do that. Consequently, teams such as the Dodgers, Padres, and Braves, among others, fell short on Yelich. Miami needs to get Washington’s best to deal a player such as Realmuto, who you can build your team around
6. What a copycat league. The Giants won three World Series championships over a five-year period through 2014, then nothing through 2018. They have decided to completely change their operating philosophy from heavily scouting-based to heavily analytics-based. It appeared they were on their way to a nice balance like the Red Sox and Cubs, but the Giants have joined the masses of analytics-first teams with the hiring of former Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi.
Updates on nine
1. J.P. Ricciardi, former Blue Jays GM, Mets executive — Ricciardi, who reached a settlement of his two-year contract with the Mets this past week, says he hopes to remain in baseball and to have something solidified by the Winter Meetings. Ricciardi said he’s currently talking to two teams, though he wouldn’t identify them publicly at this time. “The Mets and I parted amicably,” he said. “I’ll always be grateful to Sandy Alderson for bringing me to New York after we worked together in Oakland. I think the Mets have a talented core of players. If their pitching staff stays healthy, they’re terrific. I want to thank the Wilpons for the last eight years.”
2. Bobby Evans, Giants executive — Evans received huge praise from agent Scott Boras, who felt Evans was one of the best negotiators he’s engaged with over the years. Evans is still under contract with the Giants for the next 18 months after being removed from his GM post.
3. Dave Dombrowski, president of baseball operations, Red Sox —
He is signed through 2019, but will Sox ownership extend him as they just did
? Dombrowski made all the right moves — from the signings of
to the trades for
, who won 17 games in 2017. The misses were relievers
, both injury-related. Bottom line: World Series champion and he runs an organization that appears to be the perfect blend of analytics and scouting.
4. Nathan Eovaldi, RHP, free agent — The early suitors are the Brewers, Phillies, Braves, Angels, Red Sox, White Sox, Blue Jays, Padres, and Giants. There’s likely to be more. Eovaldi would love to stay in Boston and the Red Sox will take their best shot.
5. Joe Kelly, RHP, free agent — If you’re the Red Sox do you make Kelly that three- or four-year offer in the $10 million-per-year range or do you devote that money toward another reliable late reliever, preferably someone lefthanded? There’s something to be said for familiarity with a player, but the Sox also have seen the flaws. Kelly disappeared for a good two months during the season, but he came up huge in the postseason. You can see a strong debate on either side. As one major league baseball executive said of Kelly, “It’s hard to replace 100 miles per hour. Anyone who signs him has to understand that occasional inconsistency. No reliever is consistent all season. They all have their ups and downs.” Our executive also thought that Kelly could come close to getting the most interest of any non-closer on the market.
6. Andrew Miller, LHP, free agent — He wouldn’t be against returning to the Red Sox. Miller spent some of his best times with the team. It’s where Bobby Valentine finally made the decision to make him a reliever, and it turned out to be gold. Miller often talks to other players about his Boston experience and how it’s different than anywhere else, even New York. Miller had to get over some leg issues in 2017 with the Indians, but he appears to be healthy again.
7. Blake Swihart, C, Red Sox — There are only a handful of organizations that have top-of-the-line catching available, which makes the likes of Marlins backstop J.T. Realmuto, and free agents Wilson Ramos, Yasmani Grandal, and Jonathan Lucroy so valuable in free agency. And that applies to Swihart. After teams got a chance to watch him catch this season, most were impressed with his athleticism and his ability to perhaps take a No. 1 job. The Red Sox have had, and will have, suitors for him this winter if they want to fill another need.
8. Ian Kinsler, 2B, free agent — He won a Gold Glove for the second time in his career. Kinsler committed that horrible error that extended Game 3 of the World Series, but he is still a good defender. The Red Sox seem to be protected at the position in case Dustin Pedroia can’t make it back with Brock Holt, Nunez, and Tsu Wei-Lin. But Kinsler, given that he’s 36 years old, could be available for a while in case the Red Sox find out deep into spring training that Pedroia is still hurting.
9. Bryce Harper, OF, free agent — Philadelphia may be the best place for Harper given the hitter-friendly dimensions of Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies may also be willing to overpay, but is it where he wants to spend the rest of his career? Maybe nothing trumps the money, but where you feel you would be comfortable playing for the next 10-14 years has to factor into the decision. The “where” will wind up being a big part of this story.
From the Bill Chuck files — “I hope that free agent David Robertson, who is serving as his own agent, knows that when he pitched with two runners on in 2018 he held batters to a .107 batting average against (3 for 28) with 13 strikeouts.” . . . Also, “From Aug. 1 on, between the regular and postseason, 53 relievers made at least 25 appearances. Craig Kimbrel led with 15 saves. However, he ranked 44th with a 4.82 ERA and he and Joe Kelly (3.03 ERA) tied for 32nd with a 1.29 WHIP.” . . . Happy birthday, Darnell McDonald (40), Tom Seaver (74), and Gary Bell (82).
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.