Returning to a Red Sox team he may not recognize, Alex Cora faces daunting task

The last time Alex Cora wore the Red Sox uniform, he emerged from the home dugout at Fenway Park and wrapped the franchise’s greatest player in a hug. Mookie Betts had just raced from first base to home on a single, turning a moment’s hesitation by a Baltimore Orioles outfielder into an electrifying, walk-off moment only Betts can produce.

As the crowd cheered after the club’s 84th victory, and twilight edged toward darkness, Betts offered a vision of hope in a postgame interview: “We’ll go get ‘em in 2020.”

Yeah, about that.                                                                                                        

Not six weeks after that feel-good finish, Cora’s involvement, as Houston Astros bench coach, in the worst sign-stealing scandal (that we know about) in the game’s history was detailed by The Athletic. Two months after that, Major League Baseball’s report on the matter resulted in yearlong bans of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow – with Cora’s back bearing the biggest tire tracks.

Hours later, Cora was an ex-Red Sox manager. Weeks later, Mookie Betts was a Dodger.

Nine months and one last-place finish later, Cora, once again, is Red Sox manager.

If that weirds you out a bit, well, little wonder that the Red Sox chose the moment leadership of the free world likely flipped for good to toss that little nugget out Friday morning.

With Cora’s rehiring, moral high horses will be mounted, and justifiably so. It can be credibly argued that the protagonists in the sign-stealing scandal should never hold positions of power and influence again. Lest we forget, the Red Sox had their own little video room scheme during Cora’s reign as manager, though MLB’s report seemed intent on absolving Cora as much as it pinned blame on him in Houston.

Right or wrong, once Hinch served his time and was deemed fit to manage the Detroit Tigers, there was no way Cora could be kept from a dugout.

And for those wondering if his time away was punitive enough, well, consider the situation he’s inheriting.

Cora led the Red Sox to a World Series title in 2018. (Photo: Joe Camporeale, USA TODAY Sports)

Other than losing a paycheck, Cora was fortunate to avoid the horror that was the 2020 Red Sox season, a year that saw them finish with the fourth-worst record in baseball, with a pitching staff last in the majors in Fielding Independent Pitching and 28th in earned-run average, and a lineup with 100% less Mookie Betts.

Not a bad year to take off – even if Cora will nonetheless inherit a fixer-upper in a market that demands more.

Let’s start with Betts.

This wound will not go away soon. For all the talk of fans stung by the Astros’ cheating missing their chance to make their feelings known, so, too, were Red Sox fans disenfranchised by COVID-19 and the restrictions it wrought.

Perhaps there was an inevitability to Betts’ departure, though that a club with bottomless resources would electively ship off the most dynamic player in its history never sells well.

Imagine if they held onto Betts, and 2020 unfolded the way it did. Would pandemic conditions mean the Red Sox could have retained his services for the relative bargain price of $365 million, like the Dodgers did?

We’ll probably never know, but many Red Sox fans may never be convinced, otherwise. And the Dodgers' run to a Betts-motored World Series title only twisted the knife.

Meanwhile, the roster and organization at large are in a grim nowhereland that will be challenging to navigate.  True, former GM Dave Dombrowski sold out hard, both to construct the unbeatable 118-win title club Cora presided over, and to try and keep that gang together. The $213 million committed to pitchers Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi are essentially sunken costs until proven otherwise, particularly with a new GM and ownership both throwing the word “sustainability” around as if they’re touting the Green New Deal rather than a ballclub.

Ah, yes, that new GM. Chaim Bloom did not hire Cora in the first place, and strongly considered Sam Fuld, well-known to Bloom from their time in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, this time around. There’s no reason Bloom and Cora can’t enjoy a strong working relationship, but any employee knows the dynamic is a little different when your current boss isn’t Your Guy, per se.

Meanwhile, Bloom will cast an eye toward rebuilding a farm system that ranks in the bottom half-dozen, buttressed only so much by the Betts deal. Fixing the farm while fielding a competitive roster burdened by huge contracts may prove impossible.

Their best player, third baseman Rafael Devers, is suddenly halfway to free agency. Given the time it will take to build back better, and Bloom’s DNA from his time with the Rays – where dumping players two years early rather than one year late is always preferable – you wonder if Devers will facilitate the future rather than be part of the present.

Either way, the pressure to win will not dissipate, not in Boston, certainly.

The first time around, Cora was handed a championship-ready roster and ran it beautifully. This time, it will be as much about teaching and prodding and believing in a longer-term vision, and there’s no reason Cora can’t rise to this occasion, as well.

At the least, Cora has his livelihood back. But the task ahead may at times serve up its own form of punishment.

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