Alex Cora’s first year as the Red Sox manager has, obviously and without a doubt, been an unmitigated success. Even the most optimistic among us could have never seen a season like this, and the Red Sox have a chance to wrap up their regular season goals very soon. They need just one win in this upcoming Yankees series to clinch the division. They have a magic number of just five to clinch the best record in baseball and ensure home field advantage throughout the postseason. That’s huge, and there are still twelve games left in this season. It’s not a situation we are used to, having nothing to play for over the final couple weeks of the season, but it’s certainly not a bad thing.
So, what happens next? We know the day after a division-clinching win always features the intensely-entertaining hangover lineup featuring as few regular contributors as possible. But....then what? They can’t run out hangover lineups for two weeks. But, at the same time, they will also want to get rested up for October, as the regular season games may not mean anything as soon as Wednesday. This certainly won’t be the most difficult portion of Cora’s year in Boston, and it won’t be the most important, but it’s not nothing either. The manager needs to find the right balance to strike here, and it’s not a terribly easy task.
Each of the two sides in the rest vs. play debate have pretty clear arguments. In terms of rest, you want guys fresh in the postseason. We’ve seen the last two years how quickly things can come to a close, and while blaming two consecutive early exits on a lack of rest is a wild oversimplification of the past two seasons, it was part of it. You want players to at as close to 100 percent as physically possible at this point of the year when the calendar flips to October. Of course, you also have to consider that they’ll have four days off between the end of the regular season and the first game of the ALDS.
On the other hand, you can’t just sit everyone for three weeks straight. That probably goes without saying, but that would be the extreme version of the rest argument. There’s a reason teams have six weeks of spring training and a full month of game action before the games start to count. Baseball, particularly on the hitting side of things, is all about timing, and losing that timing is a lot easier than getting it back. Just look at J.D. Martinez, who spends hours before and after every game honing his craft. He needs to hit to stay on top of his game. So, it’s about finding that balance. How much do you value rest, how much do you value keeping players in the game? It’s not an easy question!
Specifically with this team, there are a few players and areas on which Cora needs to focus. In terms of rest, he needs to be careful with Mookie Betts and Matt Barnes. The former was removed from Sunday’s game with “left side soreness,” and in the postgame press conference Cora indicated that it wasn’t serious. Betts should play on Tuesday, though likely as the DH. The player said he has no issues hitting and that it’s mostly affecting his throwing ability. Still, there’s no reason to push him beyond what they have to, and he’s too important to push.
Barnes, meanwhile, has been out with a hip injury and working his way back. His is a harder situation to manage, because he is also extremely important to the team but also a less sure thing. Cora will want to get him some appearances to get ready for the postseason and make sure he’s ready to pitch, but he also doesn’t want Barnes to come back to soon and end up missing the postseason all together.
On top of these two injured players, Cora still has a few position battles to figure out. He’ll have to determine who gets the bulk of the playing time at third base. Eduardo Núñez, who is also currently injured, has been the steadier player in the second half, but Rafael Devers certainly has the higher ceiling. Behind the plate, Cora will need to get some non-Sandy León catchers time with the starting pitchers slated for the postseason roster to see if León’s defense is really worth keeping him in the lineup everyday despite his nonexistent offense. But, at the same time, he needs to get León some time in case the defense is deemed that important. The manager also needs to continue his auditions for the final spots on the bullpen.
All of this is to say that, even if the regular season could essentially be wrapped up within the next few days, it doesn’t mean Cora’s job is over. He needs to find a balance between rest and playing time for his regulars, he needs to be careful with the banged up players on the roster, and he needs to finish out some position battles. His first year on the job has been an incredible success, but Alex Cora still has a little more work to do before the real test begins.