Now comes hard part for Alex Cora - the quest for a Red Sox repeat

Now comes hard part for Alex Cora - the quest for a Red Sox repeat

Everything will be harder for Alex Cora this year. And his season may be harder to evaluate, too.

Even if the Sox have a lesser year in 2019 than they did in 2018, Cora may actually do more as manager.

In an encore to a 108-win season, Cora may have to do more to win, say, 97 games. But few may realize it, because most people look at managing as a bottom-line evaluation: success is how many games you won, rather than an assessment of how many games you won in a given circumstance.

So much went right for Cora in ’18. Naturally, plenty of the Sox’ success was owed to the first-year skipper’s touch and the relationships he fostered. No, he did not hit all of J.D. Martinez’s home runs — but he did create an environment for his players to flourish.

Nonetheless, Cora & Co. stare now at a title-defense season that will bring greater difficulty. That’s not a judgment on them as much as the scenario and the sport.

If the ’18 team represented the greatest in Sox history, the chances of a similar follow-up are slim — even with a group that’s largely unaltered.

“One thing about this group, and that’s a cool thing, throughout the offseason they’re staying locked in,” Cora said. “It’s hard to believe. Sometimes I wonder, I sit down at home and think, ‘It’s not possible.’ We text and we call and we talk about next year. Yeah, we’re celebrating and we’re enjoying the whole thing, but it looks like they turned the page a month ago.”

For his part, Cora’s signature confidence hasn’t wavered, nor would one expect it to. He has a cockiness, really, and an enjoyable one for fans considering results have followed at every turn in his short time as manager.

“If you thought last year was special, wait ’til this year,” Cora proclaimed to a packed room at the 2019 Boston Baseball Writers Dinner.

A winning attitude is fun. A bold personality at the helm makes the Sox more entertaining - a flavorful accompaniment to the entree of winning.

But coming off a World Series, Cora’s challenge in a market that always demands a winner is probably even greater.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch just lived that experience in a smaller market last year in Houston, after winning the ’17 World Series (with Cora as his bench coach).

Hinch’s Astros won more games in the ’18 regular season than they did in ’17, and the job for Hinch evolved with a team full of players receiving newfound attention and expectations.

The Astros set a franchise record for wins in 2018, in fact. But that didn’t exactly grab the world’s attention once the Astros were eliminated in the playoffs.

“I was proud of the guys in the spring,” Hinch said during the ’18 playoffs. “For the guys that are here, we have a little bit different team this season. Every team's different.

“But in the spring, there was a great humility in how we were going about our work. That helped kick-start the year with if we're going to do something special, we're going to need to attack it differently than we did. It wasn't just we were going to copy and paste from the year before.

“That helped. When we got pushed this season, to defend our guys, I don't think our guys got enough credit for winning when people expected us to win. To win a franchise record number of games, the approach these guys brought every day.

“I know we expect it at this level. We expect it with really good teams. Everybody had us in first place from the very beginning. When we got pushed, we fought back. And we won the division in a really good division that wasn't talked about enough as far as being how difficult it was.”

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Potential free agent Rick Porcello sees 'troubling' landscape for veteran signings

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Potential free agent Rick Porcello sees 'troubling' landscape for veteran signings

A year from now, Rick Porcello could be the one who is unsigned come January or February. If his winter as a free agent is anything like this offseason or last, why wouldn’t he still be on the market, looking for a team to pay up for a proven starter, someone who is a former Cy Young winner and consistently eats up innings?

Lefty Dallas Keuchel can describe himself in the same way, and he’s still waiting for the right offer this winter.

Surveying the market landscape last month while at Red Sox Winter Weekend at Foxwoods, Porcello was alarmed, but not solely because the biggest names were still available, such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

“I don't think that it’s the fact that those guys are unsigned right now that’s troubling to me,” Porcello said. “I think it’s more the willingness of teams to invest in their own ballclub and want to win that is that is what’s concerning. Just because the fans are paying a for a ticket, and watch a game, and the players are making money off of those tickets, as well as the team and ownership. And when you’re not giving it back to the fans 100 percent, then there’s something wrong there.

“That’s where I think that the system has broken down a little bit. Because ultimately this game, yeah, there’s a lot of money involved, and it’s a business on the ownership and players’ end and our careers. But it’s about the fans. That’s the one thing that makes this game go. And I don’t think we’re doing right by them by keeping some top-notch veteran free agents off rosters because the guys that you’re bringing up are getting paid less money and it’s an easy way to save.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily right, but again, that’s another thing that needs to be evaluated more and taken care of. At some point what’s best for the game of baseball has to be our top priority and our concern. It’s a great game, it’s our national pastime, it’s been around for over 100 years. There’s plenty of money to go around for everyone. So, let’s put the best product on the field. I just feel like enough’s enough with this already.”

Asked if he sees a solution to tanking, Porcello reiterated that “the best solution is to understand what’s best for the game of baseball and ultimately that’s how all of us will benefit from it.”

Players seem to be more and more aware of their labor issues, or at least, more of them seem to be vocal about their feelings. Or perhaps both.

“We are less [than] a month from the start of spring and once again some of our games biggest starts remain unsigned,” Evan Longoria recently wrote on Instagram. 

“Such a shame. [It] seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents. As fans, why should ‘value’ for your team even be a consideration?

“It’s not your money, it’s money that players have worked their whole lives to get to that level and be deserving of. Bottom line, fans should want the best players and product on the field for their team. And as players, we need to stand strong for what we believe we are worth and continue to fight for the rights we have fought for time and time again.”

Like Porcello, Sox owner John Henry gave his evaluation of the market at Winter Weekend. He said the performances teams are getting from their younger players has hurt the free-agent market.

“We have a lot more production something from younger players for whatever reason," Henry said. "I think that has negatively impacted free agency." 

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After a taxing 2018, Red Sox rotation will need workload watched this season

After a taxing 2018, Red Sox rotation will need workload watched this season

The lasting image of the 2018 World Series may well be the performance of a losing pitcher, a starter used in relief for three consecutive games, Nate Eovaldi.

The Red Sox prioritized re-signing Eovaldi this offseason, and in doing so, committed to maintaining what everyone believed would be their core strength a year ago: the rotation.

Most of the season, the rotation at least shared the spotlight. The bats were incredible last year, aided by the addition of J.D. Martinez and the arrival of Mookie Betts, the MVP version. The lineup’s turnaround from 2017 drew a large amount of attention, perhaps occasionally shrouding how good the rotation was all year.

But the bedrock for the ’18 Sox was always supposed to be the starters, and in the end, that group went above and beyond. David Price (13 2/3 innings pitched), Eovaldi (8 IP), Eduardo Rodriguez (6 1/3 IP), Chris Sale (5 IP) and Rick Porcello (4 2/3 IP) accounted for 37 2/3 innings in the Fall Classic, leaving 15 1/3 innings to the regular relievers.

The majority of the starters’ appearances were in relief to boot, seven of 12.

Porcello, emotional and a leader, looked back on what the rotation specifically was able to do.

“Probably those couple of days or that week after the parade, and kind of just recovering physically and mentally, we thought about the things we accomplished as a team and our rotation,” Porcello said. “What Nathan did in the World Series was unheard of, and that was incredible. Unless you’ve thrown in big league games and pitched back to back, you don’t quite know what that feels like. That’s why it was so special to me, and motivating and inspirational.

“The night before David started in Houston [in Game 5 of the ALCS], he threw 60, 70 pitches in the bullpen and then found his changeup, and arguably what he did in the bullpen that night and working on it and sacrificing how he’s going to feel physically to find whatever pitch he needed to find was a pretty big turning point for us. Because he actually dominated from there on out and was the horse that we could rely on. He went out and shut everyone down.

“Chris battling through everything that he battled through and taking the ball, no questions asked, and just all the way down the list. Eddie, our bullpen guys coming in in the third inning, Craig [Kimbrel] doing what he did, yeah, I don’t have a deep enough vocabulary to explain it any other way than, it was special, and you don’t see it that often in today’s game. There’s a lot of managing of pitch counts and workloads and those sort of things. I thought what we did last year was pretty cool, and there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

Health would be the most obvious reason. Fortunately, the Sox plan to again build their pitchers up slowly after such a taxing season in ’18.

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