By Terry Cushman – @cushmanMLB
Disclaimer: This is NOT a hit piece on Alex Cora, the manager of the Boston Red Sox.
In this piece, with the benefit of hindsight, we take a look back at the options which were available to Red Sox President Dave Dombrowski. Did he get it right?
The “second in command” behind John Farrell was his long time bench coach, Torey Lovullo. His ascension to becoming a manager was much different from the path the current manager travelled. Lovullo had been interviewed for multiple managerial jobs, but always came up short to another candidate. It wasn’t until Farrell was shockingly diagnosed with stage one lymphoma, during what was supposed to be a minor hernia surgery, did Lovullo find himself managing a baseball team. Sort of. As an interim manager at least.
He took over the management duties for the Red Sox on August 11, 2015, and got off to a torrid pace. Wade Miley became the winningest starting pitcher in the rotation, Joe Kelly went on an 8-0 winning streak, and the offense started putting up numbers which hadn’t been seen all season long. Prospects Blake Swihart, and Jackie Bradley each had breakouts, swinging the bat to respectable numbers. All in all, Boston finished the season 28-20 with Lovullo at the helm.
It’s no secret throughout major league baseball that the Red Sox have struggled for much of the past decade when it comes to public relations. It wasn’t a complete shock when the front office announced that John Farrell would resume his managment duties for the 2016 season. I mean, it’s not morally acceptable to fire an employee while they are undergoing chemo therapy is it?
In 2016, the Boston finally bounced back after two consecutive last place finishes to cruise to a first place finish in the A.L. East. As they stormed into the month of October, they wound up being matched against the Cleveland Indians, which was viewed as the more favorable matchup. The Indians were without several key players. Most notably Michael Brantley and Carlos Carrasco. However, John Farrell’s team was swept by the team managed by his old boss, Terry Francona, in three straight games.
Many Sox fans were especially stunned the next day when it was announced by Dave Dombrowski that John Farrell would return in 2017, yet again. Especially since despite the first place finish, the Red Sox had several blunders in the second half of the season. Manager John had apparently no clue whatsoever about how to effectively utilize newly acquired reliever, Brad Ziegler.
General Manager Mike Hazen departed the Red Sox front office to assume control over the Arizona Diamondbacks front office following the firing of Dave Stewart. Once hired, everyone strongly suspected he would take Lovullo with him, and that’s exactly what transpired.
Much like he did in 2015 during his interim duties, the former Boston Bench coach got his Diamondbacks team to exceed all expectations. Led by Zach Greinke, Robbie Ray, and Paul Goldschmidt, the snakes won 93 games with Lovullo, made the playoffs via the wildcard for the first time since 2011, and won the wildcard game in an offensive thriller against the Colorado Rockies.
The common denominator in managing both teams, was the Lovullo always had an accurate pulse on the flow of the games, and his players capabilities. He showed confidence in them, and then they in turn had confidence in themselves. Lovullo had a steady hand, was a strong leader, and got more out of less.
And most importantly of all, he can handle the scrutiny of every market. To add the icing to the cake, Lovullo was named 2017 NL Manager of the Year for his efforts.
From the time Alex Cora was a below average hitting utility player under then Red Sox manager Terry Francona, the grand expectation was that he would one day become a major league manager himself. After retiring as a player in 2011, Cora eventually set out on a road which led him to becoming the bench coach for the Houston Astros before the 2017 season. Additionally, he also served as the general manager for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic for 2017, who subsequently finished runner up in the tournament to team USA.
Serving under Houston manager A.J. Hinch, Cora began his hands on work with players in on field practice. Hinch took ever opportunity to praise his former bench coach’s presence, communication, and work ethic. When several managerial openings became available, the Astros skipper admitted it was merely a matter of time before Cora got hired with another team.
Dombrowski honed in on him immediately. Despite frequent denials from the front office in regards to Cora’s imminent hiring, widespread reports seemed to discredit the candidacy of Ron Gardenhire or Brad Ausmus. Nonetheless, the former Astros bench coach got the nod as was expected from the moment Farrell’s firing was announced.
As Red Sox players started arriving to camp in Fort Myers, fans and media started to get a sense of where each player would fit into the lineup and roster. Mookie would lead off. Hanley would hit third. Martinez would mostly DH, but play some outfield. Mostly left field at Fenway, but right field on the road.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the logic behind some of these decisions.
As the season kicked off today, all was well until the eighth inning. In the bottom of that inning, Mookie Betts was picked off at first base. Most managers would be standing at the top of the steps motioning to the umpires to halt the action until word comes down from upstairs as to whether they might review the play. I was uncomfortable with the fact that Cora seemed somewhat distracted, and was not asserting himself over the situation. The replay looked as if Mookie was out, but in a situation like this it’s almost standard to challenge the ruling since it’s late in the game, and every scoring opportunity is precious. The game continued without a replay review.
When Joe Kelly was struggling on the mound, it seemed as though the bullpen wasn’t up to speed with the game, especially if a pitching change needed to be made on the fly. Regardless, the rookie manager allowed his right hander to stay on the mound until the bases were loaded.
Carson Smith entered the game and struggled equally as much. He walked in two runs, followed by a bases clearing triple. Craig Kimbrel never got off the bench to warm up. Which clearly indicates Cora does not buy into the new trend of bringing in the closer during “high leverage” situations as we have observed with Joe Maddon and Terry Francona in recent seasons.
Finally, Jackie Bradley was allowed to go to the plate in what ended up being the final at bat of the game. He was 0-3, had a runner in scoring position, and Cora did not seem interested in bringing in Holt or Swihart off the bench to create some spark.
Am I reading into this too much? Perhaps. But it was a terrible performance from a managerial stand point, and definitely awkward by appearance. Much like when John Farrell hilariously tried to remove Addison Reed mid-count in front of a nationally televised ESPN audience, the season opener today against the Rays simply sped up too quickly for Cora to mentally process the moves he needed to make. With Farrell it was stupidity, and with Cora it was inexperience.
As for Hanley Ramirez hitting third in the order? There’s really no mystery as to how he should be utilized. He’s 35 years old, not clutch, lacks focus, and should be batting somewhere sixth to eighth in the order. Or better yet, on another team. So as Cora scuffles with his in-game managing, batting Hanley in one of the most critical parts of the lineup will be even harder to justify.
There is not an excuse in the world as to why Torey Lovullo was not named the manager of the Boston Red Sox after getting swept by the in Indians in the 2016 post season. John Farrell was clearly inept, and would not get through an October run with a favorable outcome. Dombrowski had a front row seat to the 48 games which Lovullo managed, and it’s absolutely baffling to me that he came to the conclusion it was better to keep Farrell.
I’m not rooting against Alex Cora. What’s done is done, and he’s here for the duration of the year. I want him to succeed.
However, it’s one thing for a baseball team to be a “work in progress,” but is it okay for a team AND it’s manager to be a work in progress?
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