FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Dave Dombrowski’s equation for 2018 seems to be this: New manager Alex Cora, plus a year of growth for last year’s players, equals an acceptable replacement of David Ortiz in the clubhouse. (And at the plate, too, although that could change.)
Dombrowski already underestimated the impact of Ortiz’s departure once. He’s in danger of doing the same again.
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The Sox clubhouse issues last season were real, and hearing the players talk about them Thursday only underscored how badly management missed the mark on replacing Ortiz.
"I knew it would be kinda tough [without him],” Mookie Betts said at JetBlue Park. “I wasn't sure. I’ve never played without him so I didn't know how it would happen or what would happen. But I think last year was definitely a learning curve. I think this year we're getting to kinda know how it works without him now.
“As a whole group, it's just going to take four or five, six guys to kinda fill that one spot. It just lets you know how important he was.”
The collection of Red Sox players is virtually unchanged from a year ago. There is a new skipper.
Alright, go get ‘em, boys? Maybe. Optimism and intent exists inside the group.
“Hopefully I can be in those shoes one day,” Xander Bogaerts said Thursday, “be kind of like a David personality-wise and stuff like that.”
Bogaerts wants to take Rafael Devers under his wing.
Sox players deserve credit for addressing their issues, as they are now doing to an extent publicly. Those in uniform are indeed the enactors. They have to set a new course and strike a better tone -- an objective their best players this spring readily acknowledge is possible and needed. Dombrowski can’t do that for them.
“I think we still enjoyed it. But we could have had more fun,” Betts said of the 2017 season. “Through the rough times, I think those are the times when we could have had a little more fun instead of being down so much. If we hit a rough patch this year, I feel like maybe we can learn from last year and continue to enjoy the game and maybe get out of it faster.”
And where do they find that fun now?
"I think just tension in the locker room as far as if things are down,” Betts said. “We have to find a way to smile and go out and refocus on the game now, versus kinda what's been going on. I think this year will be a little different. I'm going to approach things a little differently, as far as, if I'm not playing well or if we're losing or whatnot, I can do my best to try and find a way to get everybody back happy, smiling, excited and going to play.”
That's everything you want to hear. But are a year's time and a new manager enough to make it come true?
The potential shortcoming of a near-identical roster would fall not only to the players, but to the person who trotted out the same group two years in a row.
If the Sox fall short of improved leadership in 2018 -- if Cora isn't able to do it all himself, and/or the same cast of players do not blossom -- responsibility falls on Dombrowski. It was his job after last year to find not only the right manager, but the right mix of players to bring the mojo.
When the pieces don’t fit, you don’t keep trying to jam them together. Dombrowski has changed one piece: The manager.
More than ever, the Sox appear able to acknowledge the struggles of the past. If the alternative is to be closed off or in denial publicly, then the players are now taking the healthier approach, for both their outside perception and their own growth.
“We’re all grown men,” Bogaerts said. “I definitely believe we all learn from last year. We had a lot of stuff going on last year, to be honest. We all live learn and move forward. We can’t just sit back and keep reminding ourselves about the past. That’s not something we want to do.”
Bogaerts didn’t want to elaborate on what he meant by "stuff," however.
“I mean, we all know. We all know what was going on,” Bogaerts said. “I don’t think I really want to get into details . . . The quicker we move on is the better for all of us. We should look forward to this year, this is a new year. New expectations. Try to reach the playoffs again and get over that first round.”
But one winter doesn't forge new leaders.
Betts on Thursday was asked about the sense some have that the Red Sox didn't generate as much buzz as a 90-win team usually did.
“I didn’t know that,” Betts said. “Those are the type of things we can’t really do a whole lot to control. Go out and win 95 games? Nothing we can do about if the fans are buzzing or not but win in the playoffs and take care of business.”
It’s a little surprising Betts never heard that chatter, but perhaps he does that strong a job blocking out the public. Betts, like David Price, is correct to note that winning is the closest thing to a panacea. Few people dislike a World Series-winning team, if that’s what the 2018 Sox indeed become. Go all the way, and it all goes away.
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But fans gravitate to character, to personality, as well as wins. How the Sox act, how they come off, what perceptions (and misperceptions out of their control) arise, all of it affects how people feel about the club.
The same thing that drives a clubhouse and anything else -- human connection -- can impact a fanbase’s passion as well.
Maybe the Sox do know how to connect now, with Cora's. But with so little rewiring this winter, it's on the engineer if there's still static.