This Red Sox team is not the one Alex Cora left behind, and he’s okay with that

"That he came back is foremost a sign that there wasn’t a better gig out there for him."

November 10, 2020, Boston, MA:
Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora speaks during a press conference for his rehiring at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts Tuesday, November 10, 2020.  
(Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox)
Alex Cora speaks during a press conference for his rehiring at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts Tuesday, November 10, 2020. –Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox

Think they’ve told Alex Cora about the state of starting rotation yet?

The last time he was here, before his “mutual parting” and his one-year suspension for his bang-the-trash-can-slowly role in the 2017 Astros’ cheating scandal, the Red Sox endured a disappointing season.

They plummeted to 84 wins, or 24 fewer than they won in 2018 when they stormed their way to their fourth World Series title this century. They missed the playoffs, and without much suspense.

That ‘19 team was still rich with talent, even if most of the pitching staff underperformed and/or struggled with injuries. The Red Sox did get 113 starts out of Chris Sale, David Price, Eduardo Perez, and Rick Porcello in ’19, the four starters that were the backbone of the ’18 champs.

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Not one of them started a game for the Red Sox in 2020.

The longstanding prediction that Sale would someday blow out his elbow came true, 10 seasons into his superb career. Rodriguez missed the whole season with COVID-19 complications. Porcello signed with the Mets and pitched like a guy that didn’t have many options besides signing with the Mets, and Price escaped to Los Angeles in the Mookie Betts trade, then opted out of the season.

As far as sequels go, I thought that the ’19 season was pretty much the real-life equivalent of “Major League 2.” But then I looked up “Major League 2” on Rotten Tomatoes, and discovered it has a brutal 5 percent rating among critics.

So last season – when the Red Sox didn’t fall off by 24 games, but actually won just 24 games total in the most bizarre abbreviated season that we will hopefully ever witness —  well, yeah, that was our “Major League 2” of a Red Sox season. Brutal.

I’m being facetious, of course. Cora knew about the pitching and everything else that has changed since he last wrote out a lineup card on Sept. 29, 2019, with Mookie Betts’s name at the top.

That he came back is foremost a sign that there wasn’t a better gig out there for him (he should have been the White Sox’ choice over Tony La Russa). But it also suggests that he’s copacetic with what chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom has in the works to escape the malaise of the past two seasons.

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And there’s reason to be optimistic about Bloom’s capabilities, even after all of that. [Makes sweeping gesture at the entire 2020 season.]

He’s already made clever, beneficial trades. No one has chirped more often than me about the foolishness of trading Betts, and if you’re one of those correspondents asking if I’ll ever write another Sox column again without mentioning him, the answer is yes, in 2027. I hate – that is the right word, hate – that they traded him.

But that decision most likely was made before Bloom swapped in his Rays polo shirt for a Red Sox one. And if he had to absolutely make the move, he did pretty well. Alex Verdugo is an energetic, well-rounded player who may even make a couple of All-Star teams. Jeter Downs has a terrible name, but he is promising enough that colleague Alex Speier rates him in Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect. He should be the regular second baseman in a season or two and hopefully will have changed his name to Nomar Downs by then. Connor Wong could be a versatile bench option with the ability to catch.

It was a trade that never should have been made, but we shouldn’t hold that against the interesting players Bloom got in return.

More encouraging are the small deals he’s already won, in less than a full year on the job. Acquiring Nick Pivetta (who has a shot at cracking the rotation after an impressive late-season audition) and Conor Seabold for relievers Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman is already a win. They were a pair of disasters for the Phillies, averaging a 9.27 ERA in 25 combined appearances. Both are now free agents.

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Bloom signed Kevin Pillar as a free agent and eventually dealt him for an interesting pitching prospect in Jacob Wallace, formerly of UConn. Mitch Moreland went to the Padres for a pair of top-15 Red Sox prospects (per the valuable soxprospects.com) in outfielder Jeisson Rosario and corner infielder Hunter Potts.

I wonder sometimes if we give Bloom too much credit for the Rays’ knack for finding overlooked talent and making savvy secondary trades, since Erik Neander was the one ultimately making the decisions. But the early signs during his Sox tenure strongly suggest Bloom has that same ability.

That bodes well for the approach to free agency as well. There is going to be an enormous pool of players to consider, from the 180-plus current free agents to the countless established players (see Brad Hand, for an early example) of players that will be non-tendered before the Dec. 2 deadline.

There is going to be a golden, and perhaps unprecedented, opportunity to add quality players at reasonable to bargain rates this winter. I’m sure Cora has some suggestions on who he would like to acquire, perhaps starting with former Astros and Rays starter Charlie Morton.

Count me among those that don’t believe the Red Sox should pull a Dave Dombrowski and get heavily involved in pursuing the biggest-name free agents. National League Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer would change the entire landscape of that rotation, but his increased spin rate last season is … let’s say curious, and I suspect he’s a bauble new Mets owner Steve Cohen is going to covet. The best positional free agent is Phillies catcher J.P. Realmuto, but the Red Sox would have to deal Christian Vazquez to pursue him, and that seems improbable, even if it isn’t a bad idea.

Cora is coming back to a team that features three superb talents that are thrilled he’s back (Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and I’ll include J.D. Martinez here based on what he achieved playing for Cora).

He’s coming to a team that has some promising young players that weren’t a part of this roster or were just arriving when he was last here (Verdugo, Tanner  Hauck, Bobby Dalbec, and Darwinzon Hernandez, another whose ’20 season was altered by the virus).

And he’s coming back to a team that is going to mine that non-tender pool and the lower tiers of free agency for help.

He has to be OK with that. There’s no Sale, at least until later in the season, no Price, and no Mookie. But it’s a much better scenario for everyone than last year when Cora had no job, and the Red Sox had no chance.

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