It’s worth repeating: Alex Cora has a challenge ahead
The recurring theme for the Red Sox over the next few months will center on whether they can repeat. We know how difficult it is to defend a championship.
The Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000, and four in five years. The core talent was Hall of Fame-caliber players Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and borderline ones such as Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams. Before that we had the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and ’93.
We all know what happens the year after. Either the enthusiasm isn’t quite the same, or there are injuries to key personnel, or there’s a team of destiny that unseats you.
So, what are the issues that Red Sox manager Alex Cora must conquer?
■ Enthusiasm factor — The players loved playing for Cora. And sources indicate that there are free agents the Red Sox would normally never pursue who would love to play in Boston because of Cora.
After the final season of John Farrell, who had an enthusiastic group in 2013 that won the World Series, the players were overjoyed when the high-energy Cora took over. Cora will have that energy again because he’s motivated to repeat. But now he must transfer that sense of urgency to his players.
■ Managing the pitching staff — This is something Cora, Dana LeVangie, and Brian Bannister did so well in 2018. Certainly, despite managing Chris Sale’s pitch count and innings and rest, he was still plagued by a sore shoulder, but the Sox ace was able to come back and pitch well in the end.
The Red Sox won’t comment about the extent of Sale’s shoulder issues, per his request. This has been frustrating since we all would like to know what ailed him for several weeks. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has said that while he can’t speak specifically about Sale, he’s assured Sale will be all right for 2019.
Dombrowski and Cora also have indicated they have a plan in place for Sale for 2019, the last year of the lefthander’s contract. Since Sale is considered their No. 1 pitcher, how he responds to “the plan” will go far in determining this team’s fate next season.
One conspiracy theory is that Sale will be used as the closer, but if that were the case, Dombrowski would have signed another starting pitcher other than Nathan Eovaldi. Given the Red Sox’ financial constraints with a burgeoning payroll, this theory seems unlikely.
■ Managing pitchers’ usage — Eovaldi pitched like a man possessed in the postseason. For a guy who has recovered from two Tommy John surgeries, his performance was not only amazing but perhaps a little worrisome. What will be the long-term effects of him pitching this much with this fervor for so long? The other pitcher to watch is David Price, who more than snapped out of his postseason malaise. As both a starter and a reliever, Price was every bit the $30 million pitcher he was signed up to be. So, what will Cora do to protect the arms while also getting them ready for the season?
■ Dustin Pedroia — Second base was a revolving door in 2018, somewhat solidified by Ian Kinsler, who has since signed a two-year deal with the Padres. Cora would love nothing more than to have Pedroia for the entire season. That is very much up in the air. Pedroia as always remained optimistic in recent comments to this reporter, even though the doctors who performed his complicated cartilage restoration surgery never figured out a pertinent rehab for the knee.
■ Getting increased performance from young players — There’s no doubt that Cora believes that for the Red Sox to repeat, Rafael Devers and Eduardo Rodriguez in particular need to take the next step in their careers. Rodriguez is obviously well ahead of the 22-year-old Devers, but the lefthander, who showed signs of breaking out last season, still has the occasional mental lapses. Cora has been trying to get Rodriguez to not only throw like Price and Sale, but to think like them.
Cora believes if Rodriguez can eliminate those mental mistakes he can be a No. 1-caliber pitcher, which is what both the Orioles and Red Sox have felt he could be since he was very young. Rodriguez’s time has come.
As for Devers, Cora loves so many things about the young third baseman. One was his cool nature under pressure in the World Series, where he contributed big hits in big moments. Cora expects improvement in consistency both at the plate and in the field. Devers is scheduled to spend some time with J.D. Martinez in Miami in the offseason. We’ll see what that instruction will yield.
■ The bullpen — The area that often brings down managers. What Cora did last season was almost genius. While many felt that the Red Sox had a weak bullpen, the manager instilled big-time confidence in them by not losing faith even after one would have a poor outing.
But now he’s lost Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly (three-year, $25 million deal with the Dodgers). So he’s left with Matt Barnes as the closer, Ryan Brasier as a setup man, and Heath Hembree in the late innings, along with Colten Brewer (acquired from the Padres), Tyler Thornburg, and lefthander Bobby Poyner. This is obviously an incomplete bullpen. While Dombrowski said he’s not going to spend big dollars in this area, leaving the bullpen short probably isn’t a recipe for success.
■ Catcher — It seems as though Cora will have an open competition for the starting job. He liked how Christian Vazquez ended the season, finally putting together his offense and defense, both of which had been lacking. Sandy Leon had a terrible time with the bat. When I asked if Blake Swihart could compete for the starting job, Cora thought he could. However, it also appears Swihart could be a trade chip in acquiring a young reliever. It would be a tough decision to part with Swihart, who shows such great athleticism with the ability to play multiple positions.
■ The batting order is apparently changing with Andrew Benintendi at the top and Mookie Betts hitting second. Cora feels Benintendi can be the best on-base hitter on the team.
■ Out of Cora’s control will be whether Betts, Martinez, and Xander Bogaerts will maintain or improve their performances, and whether Devers and Jackie Bradley Jr. will improve their numbers.
Every year brings new challenges and new frontiers. Someone such as assistant pitching coach Bannister, with his ability to break down deliveries, might be able to find the next Brasier or turn a struggling reliever into a productive one. He turned around the careers of Rich Hill and Eovaldi, and he made Kelly more efficient.
You wonder if he can find something to restart Thornburg’s career; that would be a huge boost to the bullpen.
Cora will also have to deal with the enhanced Yankees and Astros. They remain his biggest competition. And he has to keep an eye on the Rays, who always find a way to beat the Red Sox with their top-flight pitching.
Something tells me Cora is up for the challenge.