3 takeaways after a wild weekend for the Red Sox

Red Sox pitching is not sufficient, Alex Cora is not innocent, and more as Mookie Betts-less spring training looms.

This week begins the post-Mookie Betts era of Red Sox baseball, hard as that is to fathom.

COMMENTARY

Mookie Betts and David Price were still not quite officially L.A. Dodgers as the sun rose on Monday morning, but we were closer than we’d been since this grand dance began last Tuesday night.

We’ve been on quite the ride, baseball capping a rollicking, billion-dollar winter with an attempt to consume itself whole in the final week before spring training. J.D. Martinez spoke for most of us when the second version of the trade went public: Vaya con Dios, Brusdar Graterol, and welcome middle-infield prospect Jeter Downs and catching hopeful Connor Wong alongside Alex Verdugo.

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Behold, the emoji version of “it stinks.”

I want to make three points here, not all involving the deal directly, as 96 consecutive hours furiously refreshing my Twitter feed has left me questioning our collective sanity.

Alex Cora still did something wrong.

Friday’s report from the Wall Street Journal outlining the depth of Houston’s electronic sign-stealing efforts, including (by local interpretation) how much further it went than Alex Cora’s involvement as the 2017 Astros bench coach, makes pretty clear that Major League Baseball left plenty of details out of its nine-page investigation report. It, frankly, made me consider whether commissioner Rob Manfred will survive all this, as his office is clearly trying (and failing) to play this as a rogue franchise, as the NBA did with game-fixing referee Tim Donaghy, in hopes we never learn how widespread the problem really is.

Saying Alex Cora is being railroaded, however, is far from saying Alex Cora is innocent, as many Red Sox fans are, and that the team should reconsider his dismissal.

I get it: Most didn’t want Cora to leave the Red Sox even in the worst heat of this, so of course they’ll seek a way to get him back. But the WSJ report didn’t mention Cora because it didn’t focus on Cora’s part in the scheme, not because he wasn’t involved in it. Plenty on the outside took to calling him the “mastermind” of Houston’s nefarious behavior, given the scandal followed him to the Red Sox, but that was never MLB’s interpretation.

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Look at the words they wrote: Cora will ultimately be suspended because he was a big part of what the WSJ refers to as the “embellishment” of the system in mid-2017, going from calling the replay room to obtain sign information to arranging for the monitor installation behind the Houston dugout and being a member of the coaching staff fully immersed in the trash-can banging system.

“Cora,” MLB wrote in its conclusion, “participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players’ conduct.”

Even if his 2018 Red Sox are exonerated later this week, as they’ve inferred for weeks they will be, Cora will still likely be suspended just as his superiors were. For the year that ex-Astros manager A.J. Hinch and ex-GM Jeff Luhnow — who heaved blame on Cora in his apology — were in January. Whatever the nature of Cora’s departure from the Red Sox manager’s job, it was inevitable for 2020.

Can he come back a year from now, if the scope of illicit sign stealing in the game is clearer and his 2018 Red Sox are largely cleared by the league? I wouldn’t count it out, especially if Boston follows through and simply installs his bench coach, Ron Roenicke, as essentially a caretaker manager. The team certainly did nothing to dismiss the idea, gushing about Cora at its press conference.

The Red Sox aren’t the only MLB team being ‘cheap.’

Approximately 145 percent of Twitter-using Red Sox fans swore off the team after decades this weekend, disgusted with them cheaping out by not giving Mookie Betts $400 million. They do have a point: Fenway Sports Group was, in December, valued by Forbes at $6.6 billion. The team did, again by Forbes’s figuring, produce $516 million in revenue in 2018. They could, by all accounts, weather the “roughly $90 million to $100 million over the next three years” they’d face in penalties if they don’t get under the luxury tax number by season’s end.

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But so could the other big-market clubs who are acting in exactly the same way the Red Sox are, treating the luxury tax line as a de facto salary cap every three years.

The Yankees, baseball’s most valuable team, made it a point to reset their tax penalties in 2018, GM Brian Cashman referring to it as “a mandated goal … so we’re not lining the pockets of our opponents at our expense” to reporters. It was, as advertised, a reset. Last year, their payroll shot back up, and this winter, they gave Gerrit Cole $324 million.

The Cubs, valued just behind the Red Sox, have had their pockets turned out empty two winters running, and spent much of this one shopping Kris Bryant despite the cash bonanza of their own TV network on the horizon. (Marquee Sports Network launches Feb. 22.)

A more pointed example? The “free-spending” Dodgers, whose nearly $300 million payroll in 2015 led to the new penalty structure, which debuted in the collective bargaining agreement signed after the 2016 season.

Los Angeles spent more than $250 million in both 2016 and 2017, the latter ending with a scintillating seven-game loss to the Astros in the World Series. How did the Dodgers, on the cusp of their first championship since 1988, seek to build off that? By cutting their payroll more than $60 million to, you guessed it, reset their tax penalties. And that wasn’t all: They stayed under again in 2019, part of a plan to remain under the tax line for the rest of the current CBA.

“We have plenty of resources to win a World Series next year,” Dodgers GM Andrew Friedman, Chaim Bloom’s former boss with the Rays, told reporters in November 2018. “There’s no question about that. The talent on hand, and the flexibility to do that, is definitely there.”

Having their prospect and youth largesse makes that possible, of course, and L.A. made strong efforts to sign free agents Anthony Rendon and Gerrit Cole before settling on a year of Betts. (Who they’re now a favorite to ink long-term after 2020.) But what are they up to now, with he and Price essentially in the fold? Still trying to get under the tax line.

Yes, none let walk a homegrown talent the caliber of Betts, on track for a statue and a No. 50 on the right-field facade when all was said and done. But it’s a reminder why, at least in part, he wants so badly to get to free agency, and why simply maintaining labor peace can’t be a priority for the MLB Players Association in the next CBA.

This isn’t a “the Red Sox are cheap” problem. This is a “baseball is cheap” problem.

The lineup is good enough. What about the pitching?

Those who study these things seem to think Verdugo-Downs-Wong, all from the Dodgers, is better than the initial Verdugo-Graterol mix from Minnesota and L.A., prospect-head Keith Law declaring “Red Sox fans should be happier with the second Mookie Betts trade than they were with the first.”

“They still shed salary, which was always the goal of this process,” Law wrote, “although as I said last time, it only matters if they put that money back into the major-league roster, preferably into starting pitching.”

That can’t be said loudly enough, because the centerpiece of any low or lowered expectations about the 2020 Red Sox remains their ghastly lack of pitching. Which, frankly, Graterol would’ve helped even if he only could’ve relieved.

Consider this batting order for 2020: Newly-signed Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts (Boston’s original Derek Jeter admirer), J.D. Martinez, Mitch Moreland, Michael Chavis, Verdugo, Christian Vazquez, and Jackie Bradley Jr. (one of several who warmly saluted his former teammates on Instagram). Futz with the order, but that’ll play.

Now, draw yourself a pitching staff. Chris Sale, who looks fine in Fort Myers but has an ugly recent health history. Eduardo Rodriguez, who went from about 140 innings in 2018 to 203 in a breakout 2019. Nate Eovaldi, injured about all of last year. Free-agent addition Martin Perez, whose peripherals were great last year in Minnesota, but still pitched to a 5.12 ERA in the AL Central. And …

“We’ve kind of all got that chip on our shoulder,” Eovaldi told WBZ Radio from camp. “We’ve got a lot of things to prove. We all know how talented we are and how talented we can be and the potential we have.”

Which doesn’t even address the bullpen, whose peripherals were similarly a lot better than 31 blown saves would have you believe. Regardless, the 2019 Red Sox lost nine games they led at the start of the eighth inning and seven that were tied to start the ninth. Of their 16 losses to include a blown save, six were to the Rays and Yankees. Spin most of those, and maybe September’s a little more interesting around here.

Nuance is long since dead in public discourse of all kinds, and any failure the 2020 Red Sox have will be viewed almost exclusively through the lens of Betts, Price, and Verdugo, who as a 23-year-old West Coaster can’t fully grasp the lion’s den he’s walking into. (Imagine if his back doesn’t heal fully, or if he’s as immature as some early career reports have suggested.) Nothing short of winning a World Series will spare the what ifs.

Don’t lose that trades are long-view things. Give it a year, at least.

Even if the year I’m asking you to give it is going to feel like the longest since the days of Bobby Valentine.