The finalists for American League Manager of the Year will be announced on Monday, and Alex Cora almost certainly won't be among them.
That's just the nature of the honor, which should really be renamed, "Manager of the small-market team that won more games than we expected because our preseason picks were bad" award. By that criteria, the winner will either be Tampa's Kevin Cash or Seattle's Scott Servais, with perhaps Detroit's A.J. Hinch, Toronto's Charlie Montoyo, or everyone's favorite gruff grandpa, Dusty Baker, earning the final nomination.
But take a step back and consider the job Cora did, and it's hard to imagine anyone getting more out of the 2021 Red Sox, who rebounded from a last-place finish to fall just two games short of the World Series.
Since votes were tabulated before the postseason, Cora won't receive any extra credit for outmanaging Cash in the division series. His regular season made a compelling case on its own, however. Running the Red Sox required Managing with a capital M, thanks to a versatile roster that meant a constant shuffling of positions, and an inconsistent bullpen that left Cora perpetually in search of the hot hand.
The Red Sox started nine different players at second, eight at first, and eight in left. Cora constructed 142 batting orders in 162 games, his most common grouping appearing together a grand total of four times. The Red Sox used 37 pitchers (including 4 position players) and never quite knew which relievers would be reliable. What started as a Matt Barnes-Adam Ottavino-Darwinzon Hernandez trio for the eighth and ninth innings morphed into a Garrett Whitlock-Josh Taylor-Ryan Brasier grouping by the end.
Cora made it work as that rare breed, the manager who's the face of the franchise. Xander Bogaerts may be the longest-tenured star, and Rafael Devers may be the best pure hitter on the roster, but Cora is the most recognizable member of the organization.
Even his most ardent backers didn't necessarily see that coming when he returned from a year-long suspension as a changed and chastened man. The Cora of 2019, who had won championships as a player, coach, and manager, seemed to believe a little too much in his infallibility ("We don't need to turn the page"), and the Red Sox suffered through a World Series hangover as a result.
The Cora who returned this season retained his confidence, but dialed back the cockiness that bordered on arrogance. He never once made an excuse for his actions in the Astros' cheating scandal, even though he could've reasonably noted that he had been made to the take the fall for an organizational failure. In a sport that preaches daily accountability, Cora lived it from the top down, that added dash of humility cementing his authority.
He held the club together through a season-opening sweep vs. the Orioles, a trade deadline that did not supply immediate help, and a COVID outbreak that could've ended the season in August. Once he engaged postseason mode during the final must-win weekend in Washington, the Red Sox transformed. He used starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Nick Pivetta to close out a comeback victory vs. the Nationals on the final day of the season, and then rode that all-spikes-on-deck mentality through the Yankees and Rays before succumbing to the superior talent of the Astros with a 2-1 lead in the ALCS.
He squeezed every last drop of talent from a flawed roster, and here's where I should admit I didn't see this working. I didn't believe chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom wanted Cora, and I wasn't sure how the two would coexist. A new boss deserved his own hire, and I couldn't help but wonder if Cora was being implicitly forced on Bloom by ownership.
Whatever misgivings Bloom held -- and he admitted he needed to come around on Cora's candidacy -- it's a good thing he kept an open mind. The Red Sox overachieved despite spotty defense, a nondescript rotation, and a constantly shuffling bullpen. The manager made it work, and he's well-positioned to oversee the on-field product into the future.
Cora is entering the second year of a two-year deal that includes options for 2023 and 2024. Contrary to published reports, the Red Sox do not need to pick up Cora's option this winter, though it wouldn't be a shock if they did so this spring. Both sides are comfortable with the arrangement, as well as Cora's place in the franchise moving forward.
It's unlikely to be reflected in the Manager of the Year voting, but the Red Sox don't care. They believe the best manager in baseball resides in their dugout, and he's not going anywhere.