Alex Cora learned what kind of player Rafael Devers could be as an opponent.
Cora was bench coach of the 2017 Astros when Devers put a scare in the eventual champions in the divisional round of the playoffs. After cruising to 8-2 victories in Games 1 and 2, the Astros watched Devers homer and drive in three to pace a 10-3 rout in Game 3. He then slammed an inside-the-park home run leading off the ninth inning of Game 4 that gave the Red Sox a chance to even the series.
Though the Astros advanced with a 5-4 victory, the 21-year-old made an impression that carried over to Cora's first days as Red Sox manager, and his belief in the player has only intensified since.
As the Red Sox prepare for a 2021 season that is accompanied by pretty much zero in the expectations department, Devers seems poised to continue a leap that started in 2019 and today makes him our preseason pick for Red Sox MVP.
"I know how great he wants to be," said Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts. "Sometimes it happens quicker for guys. Sometimes it doesn't. I think it's just the focus and understanding that, hey, it's not going to always go your way, the way you want it to go. This game is hard. It's hard on its own and the more pressure you put on yourself, the harder you're on yourself, it can backfire on you."
That was the case last year, when Devers made the mistake of delivering a second straight slow start in a season that didn't allow for a strong finish. One year after slamming 32 home runs with 115 RBIs and a league-leading 359 total bases, Devers hit just .263 with a .793 OPS.
He also continued regressing defensively, leading the American League in errors for the third straight season.
"I don't put too much attention or put too much stock on what happened last year," Cora said. "He did struggle defensively. Besides that, offensively, he'll hit the ball hard. He's been working hard in his body. He's in a much better place even than last year coming into spring training."
Now 24, Devers hasn't even reached his prime, but the tools are all there for a monster season -- prodigious power, the ability to hammer pitches in and around the strike zone, and the experience to put it all together. There's no reason he shouldn't make his first All-Star team, and a 40-homer season is on the table, too.
"Obviously, I've just got to continue to work on my consistency and just focus on being better every single day," Devers said. "There are 162 games in the season. It's natural that there are going to be ups and downs throughout, but from the first game, the first pitch, I'm always trying to make adjustments to my game. Whether I have a bad game in my first game, I'm still trying to get better the next day."
If the season unfolds the way the Red Sox expect, there will be multiple candidates for team MVP, from All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts to slugging DH J.D. Martinez to rising outfielder Alex Verdugo.
But no one on the roster has a higher ceiling than Devers, and perhaps this is the year that he reaches it.