Five areas of concern for CoraBy JASON MASTRODONATO
February 12. 2018 10:25PM
FORT MYERS, Fla. — JetBlue Park, home of the Red Sox’ spring training facilities, should be a comfortable place for the majority of the players when pitchers and catchers report for their first official day on Wednesday.
Most of them have been here before.
But it’ll be unfamiliar ground for Alex Cora.
The 42-year-old has been in spring training with the Red Sox a few times, most recently in 2008 as a player, but he had just retired from his playing days when the new facility opened in 2012. This is also the first time he’s reporting as the manager.
Getting comfortable with his new surroundings and establishing a working relationship with his coaching staff and front office is undoubtedly going to take up a lot of his time these first few weeks. But soon he must turn his eyes to the field, quickly begin to formulate a plan for his roster, and understand how to use it better than his predecessor, John Farrell, who was fired just four months ago after managing an almost-identical team to a first-round playoff exit.
So here’s a list of five areas of focus for Cora as he begins to learn about his roster before Opening Day on March 29 against the Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla.:
1. Who will be receptive to and benefit from his hitting philosophies?
Beginning with his introductory press conference, the question Cora seems to get asked most during public events is about the Red Sox offense and how he’ll get more out of it. It remains puzzling that largely the same group of guys, minus the very important David Ortiz, had just a .736 OPS (22nd in MLB) one year after leading the majors with an .810 OPS.
Cora’s answer? More aggression. He’s said he wants Mookie Betts leading off and could see Andrew Benintendi behind him. And he wants his players swinging at any good pitches they see, not building deep at-bats just for the sake of making a pitcher work. Betts was one who changed noticeably due to Ortiz’ absence, becoming less aggressive because he saw fewer good pitches. Perhaps a change in coaching style will trickle down through the lineup.
Cora will fill out his first lineup card on Feb. 21 against Northeastern University.
2. Who can benefit from changes in workload?
The most obvious candidate is Xander Bogaerts, who played in 156 and 157 games in 2015 and 2016, then would’ve matched that again if not for a family emergency that caused him to step away from the team early in 2017. Bogaerts made it clear he was tired several times during the season, but days off were rare. And he injured himself coming off the bench on a day he was supposed to be off in Toronto last summer.
Only two players, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, played more than 140 games for the Houston Astros last year when Cora was the bench coach. Will Cora, who made a living out of giving regulars a breather during his playing days, keep his young players fresh?
3. Is Christian Vazquez capable and deserving of more playing time?
On the flip side of Bogaerts is Vazquez, who appeared in just 95 games behind the plate during a breakout year.
Cora marveled at Vazquez’ abilities from afar during the 2017 postseason. If Vazquez brings the same kind of focus to the plate as well as a throwing arm that’s still getting stronger post-Tommy John surgery, will Cora make the decision to end Farrell’s long-running, two-catcher system and decide to give Vazquez the everyday reins?
4. How comfortable is Craig Kimbrel pitching in a new role?
Unlike Farrell, Cora hasn’t shied away from sharing his expectations for players’ roles ahead of spring training. And Cora has some new plans for the Red Sox closer. Here’s what Cora said about using Kimbrel while at the winter meetings in December:
“I think there’s going to be certain situations that you’re going to see him probably earlier than what people expect,” Cora said.
And here’s how Kimbrel responded in January:
“There will definitely have to be a plan in place, and it’s going to come from both sides, mine and his side,” Kimbrel said.
Once the two sit down and talk, perhaps they can develop a plan to try this out in spring training. Or at least develop a better understanding of preferences and comfort levels.
5. Who can be trusted in the seventh and eighth innings?
Who will bridge the gap to Kimbrel, or fill in for ninth-inning duty when Kimbrel is used in high-leverage spots in the seventh or eighth?
Carson Smith impressed with sharp movement to his slider late last year after his lengthy time away to recover from Tommy John and Cora will have to get a feel for how Smith looks this spring.
Joe Kelly has shown elite stuff, but not without some command issues that may present risks with runners on base. And Tyler Thornburg still hasn’t thrown a pitch in a Red Sox uniform, though he hopes to be ready sometime in April after recovering from shoulder surgery.