Alex Cora is officially back as the manager of the Boston Red Sox. It has felt inevitable since the end of the season, and they finally pulled the trigger on the move Friday. There’s plenty to be said, which we already have, about what this means in the context of the league as a whole and what it says about priorities with respect to cheating and quick second chances and consequences and all of that. As I’ve said before and still stand by, I think the Red Sox should have done something else and hired someone new. I also think these sort of things come on a sliding scale and my disappointment with this certainly isn’t the most disappointed I’ve been with them in recent times.
Even if I disagree with the hiring, now that it has been done there are legitimate reasons to be excited about him being back and what it means for the team. While I did have some issues here and there with Cora as a manager in his original tenure, largely with his bullpen management, I also have little doubt he’s among the best at this job in all of baseball. And the biggest reason is his connection with his players and his ability to get maximum levels of performance. At the end of the day, that is the broad job description of a major-league manager. Get the most out of your players however you can. That can mean things like lineup construction and bullpen management and a whole host of in-game decision-making, of course. But it also means just knowing your players and allowing them to get in a headspace that is most conducive to their success.
Cora was, and presumably still should be, a master at this. There are certainly a few obvious examples of this. His relationship with Rafael Devers seems to be the one that gets the most press, and for good reason. At this point it seems clear that Devers is a high-quality hitter with the potential to be among the top in baseball for a long time, but the defense is less consistent. Cora got a lot of credit for motivating Devers to get in better shape and improve his glovework, particularly in 2019. He also helped sharpen up the consistency at the plate. The hope is that a Cora return will also mean a return to a league-average defensive version of Devers.
To me, the biggest impact Cora made with a player was with Eduardo Rodriguez. Although 2019 was a lousy season for the Red Sox in a general sense, Rodriguez put together the best year of his career with more consistency than we’d ever seen. And the way Cora talked about him was striking. Generally speaking, the Red Sox manager is diplomatic when talking about his players, particularly when they’re struggling. With Rodriguez, though, Cora rarely held back and publicly let the pitcher know he needed to be better. I don’t think that’s because he had or has a personal vendetta against the southpaw. Instead, it’s more likely that he knows Rodriguez’s personality and knows that’s how you reach him. And it paid off in a big way. Obviously there are other issues at play with Rodriguez looking ahead to 2021 as it’s unclear what kind of physical condition he’ll be in, but I’m confident Cora can get the most out of him when he needs to.
And those are just the two most high-profile examples. Pretty much every player that has spoken about Cora has nothing but great things to say. Xander Bogaerts was candid about his disappointment last winter when Cora and the Red Sox parted ways. Christian Vázquez publicly advocated for this reunion early in the offseason. Matt Barnes just recently talked about how excited he was. The players like their manager, and that’s not insignificant.
And that’s also where I see the biggest advantage to all of this playing out. Cora’s impact on his players and their short-term performance on the field is great. At the end of the day, however, that is mostly up to Chaim Bloom. The roster needs to be built up, and nothing Cora can do can turn this team into a winner without simply adding better players. But looking at things a bit more long-term, Cora’s relationship with his players could pay off big time.
The Red Sox don’t have many immediate concerns with respect to players getting set to hit free agency. But this is a winter where they could be looking to lock up some of their core talent into long-term deals. Having Cora in-house as a potential long-term manager should only help that. Rodriguez, for example, is set to hit free agency after this year. I wouldn’t suspect an extension to happen this winter with the physical questions around him, but if he comes to camp strong and there is confidence he can return to his old self, those talks could pick up and Cora’s presence could convince him to stay. The same could be said for someone like Devers, who is a free agent after the 2023 season, and Bogaerts, who can opt out of his current deal after the 2022 season. Vázquez also only has a couple years left on his deal and they could look to make that relationship longer term as well.
For as bad as the roster looks as a whole right now, mostly on the pitching side, the Red Sox do have a solid young core in place. I haven’t yet mentioned Alex Verdugo, who has yet to play under Cora, but he could also be someone who is brought to a new level by his manager. The point is, the key to sustained success is first finding a core but then making sure it is in place for as long as possible. That is a two-way street, and convincing the players it is best for them to stick around is part of the organization’s job. Even as someone who disagrees with the Cora hiring, I cannot deny bringing him back does make that part of the front office’s job easier.