Red Sox: Alex Cora is Boston’s biggest X-factor in 2021

Mar 30, 2018; St. Petersburg, FL, USA;Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora (20) congratulates catcher Christian Vazquez (7) as they beat the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 30, 2018; St. Petersburg, FL, USA;Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora (20) congratulates catcher Christian Vazquez (7) as they beat the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Alex Cora’s return should be huge for the Boston Red Sox

The 2018 Boston Red Sox were winners. They won the most games in spring training, the regular season, and the postseason, capturing the franchise’s ninth World Series Championship.

In a year full of winning, the team’s first victory actually came during the 2017 playoffs, when Houston Astros bench coach and former Red Sox shortstop Alex Cora was named the team’s 47th manager. Cora was viewed as the obvious choice at the time, and the hire paid off instantly.

As a young coach, Cora was lauded for his communication style, his baseball acumen, and most importantly, his ability to connect with his players. He brought a winning attitude, and Cora’s impact translated onto the field.

Cora’s positive influence is best measured by the development of a key group of Red Sox core players: Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Christian Vasquez. All four demonstrated considerable progression under Cora in 2018 and especially 2019. And it is no coincidence that they hail from Aruba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico, respectively –– helping them bond with Cora, also a Puerto Rican.

Cora had arguably the greatest impact on Devers. Breaking into the league at 20 years old can be difficult for the emotional development of a player, but Devers found the perfect mentor in Cora. His numbers improved each year from 2017 through 2019, culminating in a .311/.361/.555 line with 32 home runs and 115 RBI in 2019. He finished 12th in MVP voting. In Cora’s absence in 2020, Devers regressed in just about every category, especially defense.

Bogaerts had already established himself as one of the league’s premier shortstops when Cora arrived in 2018. But he, too, continued his offensive ascent, while simultaneously assuming the mantle of leadership as the Red Sox unofficial captain. Bogaerts hit .309/.384/.555 with 33 homers and 117 RBI in 2019, finishing fifth in the MVP race.

While Devers and Boagerts gradually improved their offense, Vasquez experienced more of an explosion in 2019. After hitting five or fewer home runs in each of his first four seasons, Vasquez belted 23 home runs and 72 RBI in 2019, in his first season as the sole primary catcher for the Red Sox. He emerged as a leader, taking command of the pitching staff and mentoring younger players.

Rodriguez likewise had a career year in 2019. The young lefty posted a 19-6 record with a 3.81 ERA and 213 strikeouts in his first season with 200+ innings pitched. He finished sixth in Cy Young voting. On a team that also has ace Chris Sale, a consistently dominant Rodriguez would be huge for Boston. He has a strong relationship with Cora as well.

Any conversation about Cora must, of course, address the rather large elephant in the room. Cora was at the center of a shameful sign-stealing scheme in Houston, and he paid the price by losing his job and receiving a year-long suspension from Major League Baseball. While Sox fans appeared confident Cora would return to the helm of the team following his suspension, Cora himself, and the baseball world more broadly, were not so certain.

But on November 6, 2020, the inevitable happened. After what seemed like only a brief hiatus –– a nightmarish one, at that –– Cora was back. Yes, he had to answer for his misdeeds and for the underperformance of the 2019 team. But there was no question it was the right move for the Red Sox.

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Looking to the 2021 season, that becomes even more true. Not only is Cora reunited with his core players (albeit minus Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr.), but a handful of newcomers will also benefit from his leadership.

There’s Kike Hernandez, the Puerto Rican utility-man whom Cora has known since he was a child. Hernandez played for Cora in the 2017 World Baseball Classic with Team Puerto Rico, and noted his relationship with Cora as a main draw. “It made my decision a lot easier to come in and have the opportunity to play for Alex,” Hernandez said at his introductory press conference.

Marwin Gonzalez, another key pickup for the Sox this offseason, also has a history with Cora. The Venezuelan utility-man played for Cora on the 2017 World Champion Astros, and he called Cora “one of the best coaches I’ve ever had in my career.”

In addition to his ability to connect with Spanish-speaking players, Cora’s youth is also a big asset for him and for the team. When the season begins tomorrow, the average age of the 26-man roster will be 28.5, with seven players 25 or younger. The 45-year-old manager should be well-positioned to work with an increasingly younger, and more diverse, team. With all due respect to Ron Roenicke –– no doubt a beloved and accomplished baseball coach –– the 64-year-old was not the right fit.

A lot has to go right for the Red Sox to defy expectations and succeed in 2021. Rodriguez needs to regain his 2019 form and overcome a scary health condition that ruined last season. Devers needs to continue his offensive progression and improve his sometimes abysmal defense. The list goes on.

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But when the Red Sox take the field at Fenway Park tomorrow afternoon, perhaps the most important member of the 2021 team will be seated in the dugout.