What a mess. What a devastating mess.
Seventy-eight days after the Red Sox announced the hiring of Chaim Bloom as their chief baseball officer, the job for which they hired him changed dramatically Tuesday night with the announcement that Alex Cora is out as the team’s manager. The news sent a shockwave through an organization in which the manager’s presence was enormous.
Cora was not merely a tactician or clubhouse manager. To many, he represented a sort of organizational glue who connected disparate areas in a way that gave the entire organization an identity. He interacted directly with members of the scouting, player development, and analytics departments in a way that gave a sense of shared purpose.
“We’re going to miss just about everything,’’ Red Sox principal owner John Henry said. “He was a tremendous manager for us, on all levels. We’re going to miss him.”
Cora modernized aspects of how the Red Sox operated, particularly in terms of the role played by analytics in shaping on-field strategy. And in many ways, he was the most identifiable face of the franchise.
That’s not to say that Cora was perfect at his job — even setting aside the stench of scandal that now surrounds the organization as a result of his role in the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing of 2017, and the looming threat of massive penalties that may befall the Sox as a result of MLB’s investigation into their alleged use of the video replay system to engage in electronic espionage in 2018.
In 2019, Cora’s early-season self-assurance — outlined by the near-daily mantra, “We’ll be fine” — failed to impart urgency to his team’s title-defense effort. His deployment of relievers in fluid late-innings bullpen roles backfired, particularly in the first half, and the Red Sox proved inefficient at turning leads into wins.
He also let strained dynamics between members of his coaching staff and the analytics department go unresolved, even though the source of the strain — a greater role for the analytics department in game planning — had come at Cora’s request. If the 2018 season was a magic carpet ride, the 2019 campaign proved a dramatic return to earth.
Nonetheless, his place in the organization was considerable, his connections to its different parts real, and the belief in his ability to use the missteps of 2019 to improve and help the Sox in 2020 was widespread. The team had already identified the coaching staff for the coming season that it felt best complemented Cora. The task Bloom faces in filling the void left by Cora is a considerable one without a simple solution.
“We’re going to miss him — his passion, his energy, his sense of humor, the way he cared about the entire organization,” team president Sam Kennedy said. “He walked through the front office. He knew it was important to participate actively in the New England community. He knew it was important to give back to Caguas and all of Puerto Rico. He knew it was important to engage in Major League Baseball marketing initiatives. He knew it was important to win, and so he developed close relationships with a lot of people here.
“We’ll miss him personally, and again, it doesn’t excuse the conduct from the commissioner’s report, we recognize that. But, we’ll miss a lot.”
This wasn’t a contingency the organization was anticipating. As such, in his first managerial hiring, Bloom confronts an immense challenge.
All winter, the Red Sox have been inactive while waiting for the trade market to gain definition. On Tuesday, Josh Donaldson, the last of the free agent stars, agreed to terms with the Twins, an event that could serve as a catalyst for some of the long-rumored trades involving big-name players.
Meanwhile, the questions confronting the Red Sox are now even more challenging. How does the potential loss of draft picks impact the team’s desire to trade for young talent? Does the current mess in any way alter what they try to accomplish with their roster — perhaps making them more willing to rip off a Band-Aid and take a step back in 2020, trading veterans to rebuild prospect depth at a time when they may be without top draft picks for a year or two? Or, might the anticipation of MLB punishment make them more willing to carry a robust payroll (beyond the luxury-tax threshold) in an effort to move past the current embarrassments?
All of this requires time and thought. Yet at precisely the time when the Sox seemingly need to be most devoted to their roster construction, when the trade market may crystallize, there’s a chance their attention will be divided.
Managerial searches can be consuming, particularly when there’s not a well-established candidate list. When manager Terry Francona was fired after the 2011 season and general manager Theo Epstein left the Red Sox for the Cubs, Ben Cherington’s initial five weeks as GM were spent mostly overseeing a search process that ultimately was redirected by the team’s owners from a pool of first-time candidates (Dale Sveum was the front-runner) to an experienced manager in Bobby Valentine. That process proved demanding — and limited what else the team was able to do — and yielded a disastrous result.
Does it make sense for Bloom to sidestep the time commitment needed for a full search by promoting someone from within the organization on either a full-time or interim basis, even if he has limited familiarity with the candidate? Can the Red Sox promote from within before MLB concludes its investigation? Can they truly consider an outside hire at a time when the coaching staff is otherwise set?
None of this will be easy. The Red Sox, already in a whirlpool of organizational change brought about by the firing of Dave Dombrowski in September, the hiring of Bloom in October, and the potential breakup of a roster core that had been together for a half-decade, have now been capsized by the need to figure out what to do without Cora.
Though he was manager for just two years, Cora’s place in the organization was enormous. The void he leaves — and the uncertain organizational future that trails his exit — is likewise colossal.