Red Sox

Cora plans to walk fine line between friendship and authority

Cora plans to walk fine line between friendship and authority

BOSTON -- Alex Cora’s tenure as Red Sox manager may boil down to how well he can combine authority and friendship, balance camaraderie with control.

The two dynamics sound incompatible: friendship suggests equal footing among parties, authority implies the opposite. But what would a manager want except to know his players, and know them exceedingly well? If you can’t get the pulse of your people, you can’t make the best choices for your team. Keeping your distance is little help.

A commanding and charismatic presence at his introductory press conference Monday, Cora has been brought back to Fenway Park to connect (and ideally, connect more than his predecessor, John Farrell).

THE RED SOX HIRE ALEX CORA

The days of the authoritarian manager died a long time ago. The disciplinarians — if they’re in fact a different breed — are gone too, or at least, greatly evolved.

But the final say can’t go by the wayside for a manager, and therein lies the balancing act for the 42-year-old Cora. He was a beloved teammate as a player. He was a bench coach for a World Series-winning team and managed Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. But he’s never run the whole show himself.

It doesn’t sound like Cora is going to build relationships any differently than he did in the past. There are two ways to look at such a choice. Changing one’s approach to fit a job may be a mistake, because you should be yourself. At the same time, different jobs require different approaches, at least in some moments.

“Too close to players, that doesn’t exist,” Cora said Monday. “Throughout the learning process of the Houston Astros . . . it was special for me [with] Carlos Beltran. I played with Carlos Beltran, against Carlos Beltran when we were 17 years old and we played against each other in winter ball. We played together with the Mets, and we became good friends. I have a great relationship with Carlos, off the field with his family, [his wife] Jessica -- amazing. 

“Throughout the season, although Carlos was huge for the Houston Astros as far as the performance, it wasn't what we wanted. I had to be honest with him, and we talked and we were still close. The whole thing about drawing the line, they understand that. But at the same time they're human beings, man, and you've got to talk to them, you've got to see how they feel. I'm going to encourage my coaching staff to get close to players. 

"[Astros third baseman] Alex Bregman for example. We're cool. He probably thinks I'm his older brother and I probably think the same way . . . I was able to push him because you have a good relationship and they understand that ‘Hey, he's not doing it just to get on me, he's doing it because he wants me to get better.’ And that's what happened over there and I’m going to bring it over here."

Cora had relationships with plenty of others in Houston as well. Bregman and Beltran were two standouts. But another tightrope act shows itself here. Varying degrees of friendship can lead to perceptions of favoritism. No manager can equally love all 25 players (or realistically, 40-plus throughout a season). But a manager must be very conscious of, literally and figuratively, playing favorites.

Cora reminded everyone Monday how close he and Dustin Pedroia and are. But Cora did so while drawing a line in the sand.

“First of all, I want to make this clear: the relationship with me and Dustin Pedroia is going to be forever,” Cora said. “That relationship is always going to be there. I love that kid, I love his family, they've been amazing for us, and that's not going to change. As a player, I think Pedie always looked up to me as a mentor, as a teacher. This is not going to change. He understands that back in the day when he was hitting .120 and everybody wanted me to play every day, and he was not the Laser Show, I was the one supporting him, me and Mike Lowell. We trusted him and we were helping him out. 

“Nothing's going to change -- this kid, well he's older now. He has a bad hairdo, we'll talk about him shaving his head, too. He's going to help us out. Talking to him, he's very excited. He understands that I’m the manager and he's a player. But I'm looking forward to managing him, with the attitude he brings, with the passion he brings to the game. He can help us. All he can do is help. We need him healthy, that's the most important thing, but when Dustin Pedroia is healthy he can help any baseball team.”

Asked about David Price, Cora said he called the lefty before the World Series began and that Price was awesome. Cora talked to a few others as well, but didn’t have much time to go in depth as he was preparing for the Fall Classic.

On the Price matter, Cora chose not to re-litigate the past.

“For me it's unfair to talk about what happened last year,” Cora said. “It's in the past. I'm here to move forward. I'm here to move forward. Looking forward to talk with him. He went to Vanderbilt and Joey [brother Joey Cora] did too, so we have a connection. He's a talented kid. He singled-handedly almost beat us in the playoffs, and the way he threw the ball with conviction, I'll take that. 

“The whole clubhouse thing, we'll be fine. I think you guys know me. You guys know how I dealt with Manny [Ramirez] with all the situations. We tried to bring this thing together. We're going to be fine. I look forward to meeting him, honestly.”

When Cora was able to connect with Ramirez in their time together with the Red Sox, they were both players. The unknown is whether Cora can do what he’s always done in a brand new role, where equal footing is gone and hierarchy can't be ignored.

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BEST OF BST PODCAST: David Price recruited J.D. Martinez to Boston?

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NBC Sports Boston illustration

BEST OF BST PODCAST: David Price recruited J.D. Martinez to Boston?

0:41 - Jared Carrabis joins BST to discuss David Price’s recruitment of J.D. Martinez and his comments about what it is like to play in Boston.

6:02 - Tom Curran, Phil Perry, and Tom Giles talk about where the Patriots stand with their wide receivers and if it is a position that should be addressed sooner rather than later.

10:59 - In this segment of NBA Crystal Ball, Chris Forsberg, DJ Bean, and Tom Giles predict what seed the Celtics finish with and which team will send Boston packing this season.

14:25 - Lou Merloni and Evan Drellich discuss the quotes from David Price on the negativity in Boston, what kind of success Price will have this season, and the signing of J.D. Martinez.

Drellich: It's the bench where Martinez creates roster dilemma

Drellich: It's the bench where Martinez creates roster dilemma

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Now that J.D. Martinez is about to join the fold, the Red Sox have some roster intrigue. But it's not at first base with Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez. It sits on the infield with Brock Holt, Blake Swihart and Deven Marrero.

The ideal Red Sox lineup right now — or at least, the version we think we will see when Martinez is officially inked — has Moreland sitting out more often. Still, remember that we are talking about an ideal. Someone will get hurt. Multiple players, in fact. And even if everyone is healthy, we're in an era where teams prioritize depth and keeping players fresh.

"We've got guys that can play the infield and can play the outfield,” manager Alex Cora said Tuesday. "I'm comfortable with that. I'm comfortable with a roster that's very versatile. That's very important. Guys that can complement each other. I've been talking about rest the whole week. It's very important with the travel and schedule and workload, it's very important to have versatile players on your roster.”

In Martinez, Moreland, and Ramirez, there'll be three players on a daily basis for two spots: first base and designated hitter. Martinez just received a $110 million contract to start, likely at DH. So that leaves Ramirez and Moreland to share time at first.

Ramirez has the leg up. He has the bigger bat and the bigger salary. Plus, Cora on Tuesday said he looks at Ramirez as his No. 3 hitter. It would be odd for Cora to declare as much and then put Ramirez in, say, a platoon with the left-handed hitting Moreland once Martinez is officially signed.

“As of now?” Cora said Tuesday. “Hanley Ramirez.”

With that in mind, here’s a quick review (and projection) of the other starting roles:

C: Christian Vazquez
1B: Hanley Ramirez
2B: Eduardo Nunez
SS: Xander Bogaerts
3B: Rafael Devers
LF: Andrew Benintendi
CF: Jackie Bradley Jr.
RF: Mookie Betts
DH: J.D. Martinez 

Make no mistake, Martinez’s arrival will have ripple effects. The Sox traded outfielder Bryce Brentz to the Pirates for cash, clearing a 40-man spot for Martinez, whenever his deal becomes official. (It shouldn’t be long, barring any problems with a physical.) Brentz, a depth right-handed hitting outfielder with pop, was one of a few players the Sox have in camp out of options.

Moreland may well lose some at-bats with Martinez in the fold. Ramirez might too. Unless Ramirez mashes, the Sox will have reason to limit his playing time. At 497 plate appearances, a vesting option kicks in for 2019.

“I was supposed to be in a platoon role last year, split time last year, and I played more than I ever have in my career,” Moreland said Tuesday. “A lot of things can happen. He's a great guy. He's going to be a great addition for us, and looking forward to welcoming him with open arms and watching him help us win.”

Moreland's going to get his crack again this year, you can bet on it. And he also may need some down time himself.

Moreland, 32, had a fractured toe in 2017. His 149 games played were nonetheless a career high. Jackie Bradley Jr. was slowed by injuries last season, as was Mookie Betts, as was Hanley Ramirez, as was even Martinez. 

All it takes is one. An injury in the outfield, for example, could give Martinez more time in left field, in turn opening up the DH spot, in turn opening up more time at first base for Moreland.

Martinez had a sprained right foot to start the 2017 season and played in 119 regular-season games. He had an injury when he first got to Arizona as well (because he was hit by a pitch). He also had a fractured elbow in 2016, when he played 120 games.

People wonder too, well, what happens when Dustin Pedroia comes back? Where does Nunez play? It’s the same principle. Pedroia’s coming off major knee surgery. Nunez is coming off a knee injury of his own. Neither of these guys would do well to be in the lineup every day.

So, what is the real roster intrigue to open the season? If everyone is healthy on Opening Day — and that's also a big if — the bench is tricky.

Assuming the Sox carry 13 position players and that Sandy Leon remains the backup catcher, they'll have to choose two from these three: Brock Holt, who has experience and a $2.2 million salary but also has minor-league options; Deven Marrero, who's the surest defender they have; and Blake Swihart, who's not well versed on the infield but has upside as an athlete and at the plate. Swihart and Marrero do not have options.

Holt, who turns 30 in June, by virtue of his salary, has to be considered a favorite to stick around. At the same time, he's the only one the Sox could freely stash in the minors. Swihart and Marrero have upside that makes them appealing not only to the Sox, but to other teams as well.

Demote Holt? Trade one of Swihart or Marrero? Figure someone's hurt to begin Opening Day?

(Swihart conceivably could be carried as a second catcher, but it'd be hard to see the Sox parting with Leon, whose receiving is so well liked.)

Here's a fuller visual for you:

CATCHERS 
1. Christian Vazquez
2. Sandy Leon

INFIELDERS
3. Mitch Moreland
4. Eduardo Nunez
5. Xander Bogaerts
6. Rafael Devers
7. Hanley Ramirez

OUTFIELDERS
8. Jackie Bradley
9. Andrew Benintendi
10. Mookie Betts
11. J.D. Martinez

BENCH
12. Brock Holt?
13. Deven Marrero?
14. Blake Swihart?

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