There was a lot of people on or around the Red Sox that excelled with their performance in 2018. A team doesn’t do what they do, winning 108 games and rolling through a historically great postseason field, without greatness from all levels of the organization. So many people deserved to be the one remembered most for this team. Mookie Betts won the MVP. J.D. Martinez changed the lineup. Chris Sale, when healthy, pitched as well as he ever has in his Hall of Fame-caliber career. Dave Dombrowski put together a super roster.
Above all of them, though, Alex Cora seems to be the guy I’ll most associate with this team forever. The general consensus around his hiring was positive, but no one could have expected what he did. We’ve discussed this many times, but the way he changed the attitude around this team was palpable. Never have a heard a group of athletes so unanimously praise their manager or coach, oftentimes without even being asked. Cora did everything well, and particularly in the postseason every button he pushed brought about the desired result at an almost-frightening rate.
Moving on from 2018 and moving forward to 2019, Cora could have even more on his plate for his sophomore season with more and new challenges. Of course, given what we’ve seen in his one year at the helm there’s little reason to believe he can’t handle it. Some would argue that his one season as a major-league manager was so good that he’s already among the top skippers in the league. Others would say that he needs to have another strong year to be mentioned among the best in the league. Whatever side you fall on, he is going to have a chance to once again prove his chops in a new situation this coming year. The normal hurdles of a 162-game marathon will obviously be there again, and he’s shown he can handle that. Coming off a championship, though, there’s even more on Cora’s plate than last year.
Among the most difficult tasks for the Red Sox manager this year, figuring out how to keep the rotation as fresh as possible during the coming year will be the biggest one. Cora is certainly going to be prepared for this, as he’s been talking about his plans to keep this group fresh since immediately after the World Series. The man is always prepared; you have to give him that. Obviously, the Red Sox starters worked more than usual this year. That’s generally true of any team that plays in the World Series just because they have to play an extra month, but Boston’s starters got even more work than your typical World Series staff given their work coming out of the bullpen. All of them worked overtime, and that takes its toll on a body. Cora has already said he’ll be using a six-man rotation to start the year, and he’s also said the five main starters (Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez) will be eased into action this spring. Don’t expect them to make a start in an exhibition game until mid-March. That’s a good start, and it’s highly encouraging to see that he’s already making these kinds of plans. There are going to be other issues on this front that pop up through the year, though, and Cora will have to be flexible to get through this unique situation.
The bullpen could be just as challenging to manage, though not exactly through the same lens. Granted, some of the relievers are going to need some extra rest this year, but the two relievers that worked the most in October — Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel — are either gone or likely gone. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier were the only other true relievers to get significant postseason work. The bigger challenge here is going to just be fitting the pieces together. Now, this is harder to speculate about simply because we don’t know exactly what the bullpen is going to look like, but there will be challenges. If Kimbrel is gone, Cora needs to figure out how to replace him. Will he go with a true closer? Will he play matchups more? Can he shuffle nontraditional roles and get his relievers to buy in if it comes to that? Then, there’s the fact that this team is poised to welcome a lot of young relievers into the fold throughout this season. By talent, most of them are ready now, and if not will be ready very soon. We know there’s more to success at the highest level of baseball than talent, though. When guys like Travis Lakins, Darwinzon Hernandez and Durbin Feltman get the call in 2018, Cora is going to have to figure out how exactly they should be eased in to get the most value out of them while also putting them in positions to succeed. That’s a fine line to walk.
Finally, with the position players, once again the rest comes into play, but there’s also a large group of talent here. The Red Sox bench is loaded with All-Stars or anything like that, but there are good players who would like to play more than your typical bench piece. Eduardo Núñez is probably the worst non-catcher on the bench, but he’s better than he showed last year and has established himself as a solid player in this league. Brock Holt is coming off a breakout year. Steve Pearce just won the World Series MVP and should probably play more than just getting on the short-end of a first base platoon. Then, there’s the situation at second base with Dustin Pedroia. In a perfect world, this is where Brock Holt would get his playing time, but that requires convincing Pedroia to sit more than he’s used to. If anyone can get through to the veteran second baseman about taking a step back it would be Cora, but it’s still easier said than done. The Red Sox used rest to their advantage to get everyone in and out of the lineup throughout 2018, so Cora should be able to navigate these waters. Still, it won’t be nothing.
Finally, there is the matter of just dealing with the general roster after winning a championship. It’s only natural to start feeling yourself after you get to the highest point in your profession, and that can be exacerbated when everyone on the following year’s schedule will be gunning for you the following year. There’s no one specifically on this roster that seems susceptible to becoming complacent after winning, but it’s human nature to have that creep in at least a little bit. There’s a reason no one has won back-to-back championships in about 20 years. The Red Sox should have as good a chance as anyone to win it all in 2019, and their manager is a big reason why. Alex Cora shined in 2018. In 2019, he has a chance to establish himself as one of the game’s elites.