Alex Cora returned this season to a Boston Red Sox team without Mookie Betts, but even with that generational star missing from the top of his lineup, the manager sees parallels with the 2018 squad he led to a World Series title.
Like that 2018 team, these Red Sox will need to lean on their full roster to win.
"That's something I don't agree with you guys when you talk about 2018, because we had to maneuver at first base, at second base, at third base and behind the plate," Cora said. "We had the same situation. Yeah of course you had one of the best players in the big leagues and one of the best hitters in the big leagues, but besides that, we had to mix and match. I don't think it's that much different."
Still, a lot has changed since that championship team. Cora and the Red Sox parted ways for a year while he served his suspension for his role in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scheme. After missing the playoffs in 2019, Boston shipped Betts to Los Angeles in 2020, where he is now one of the faces of baseball on the defending champion Dodgers. The only remaining starters from Boston's championship core are designated hitter J.D. Martinez, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and third baseman Rafael Devers. Andrew Benintendi now plays for the Kansas City Royals and 2018 ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley Jr. roams the outfield for the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Betts trade still stings for many Red Sox fans, who'd hoped Boston could make a deal to keep the homegrown superstar. Instead, the team not only traded Betts but moved the three years and $96 million left on left-hander David Price's contract in the same deal, in order to create future financial flexibility. But while it's only late April, Boston now finds itself atop the American League East, surprising both fans and baseball observers with a 14-9 record, three games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays.
Another difference between the 2021 Red Sox and the 2018 team: Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. Bloom's long-term vision is to build a Dodgers-like organization on the East Coast -- one that relies on depth and versatility, while building the financial wherewithal to make an occasional big splash.
Emblematic of that, Bloom & Co. signed one of Los Angeles' own, utility man Enrique Hernandez, in February. Boston's front office identified Hernandez as a priority free-agent target following the team's last-place finish in 2020, a player who represented the archetype for the team's roster-building strategy because of his ability to play multiple positions. While hitting .250/.295/.432 out of the leadoff spot, Hernandez has provided above-average defense in center field, second base and shortstop.
The Red Sox, relying on such versatility, have so far thrived on contributions from unexpected sources. Infielder Christian Arroyo -- a 2013 first-round pick by the Giants who served as a centerpiece of the trade that sent Evan Longoria from Tampa Bay to San Francisco -- continues playing himself into the lineup at second base, hitting .296/.345/.426 in 17 games after coming into the season with a career batting line of .219/.283/.360 in 85 games. Additionally, reliever Garrett Whitlock -- a Rule 5 selection from the New York Yankees whom the front office views as a potential starter -- has been a revelation out of the bullpen so far, allowing no runs in 11⅓ innings in five games, striking out 14.
Building the team's roster around Swiss army knife players like Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez, who has played every position this young season except center field and catcher, allows Cora to pivot his lineup around the team's matchups and its hottest hitters.
"Christian Arroyo has helped us with not moving certain guys too much. I think right now, you guys can see Enrique is playing more center field than we probably anticipated, but because of the way Christian is playing, the way Marwin is playing, it helps us," Cora said. "We have our defensive numbers. We do believe on a daily basis, defensively, we're pretty solid out there regardless of who plays and at the same time, we're trying to maximize our offense and try to keep a balance, splitting our lefties, using Marwin as a switch-hitter depending on who we're facing and what we've got in the bullpen and where to put him in the lineup."
Martinez acknowledges it will be hard for this iteration of the Red Sox to live up to the 2018 World Series champions, but he feels confident in this group's ability to be a dynamic offense.
"That 2018 team was a special team. That's a tough team to compete against," Martinez said. "In '18, I measured things by if we could have won the game. Did we get that opportunity? Did that opportunity come? ... Every game this season, we've always had a chance when we've won or lost to have that one hit, that one play that changes the game. Last year, I feel like we didn't have that."
If Boston hopes to make a run at the playoffs, it'll need continued output from the top of its order, with Martinez once again performing like one of the best hitters in the sport after a lackluster 2020. Martinez is hitting .370/.446/.753 with seven homers and a major-league-leading 21 RBIs in 21 games. The lineup continues to lean on the offensive trio of Bogaerts, outfielder Alex Verdugo -- who has posted a 133 OPS+ since being obtained in the Betts trade -- and Devers.
"I think we have a really good offense now too. We had one of the best hitters in Mookie here in '18, but we've got other key players like [Verdugo] and Kiké coming in," Martinez said. "If Christian Arroyo swings it like he swings it, that's a big plus and he can really impact this team. Bogie and Devers are Bogie and Devers. They are going to hit."
Those in the front office acknowledge that the team will need better performances out of the bottom of the lineup, with hitters like first baseman Bobby Dalbec and outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Franchy Cordero struggling to generate much production. For now, the roster's depth is making up for their lack of offensive output.
"We like matchups, but with Christian right now, it's not like he's getting lucky getting hits, but he's getting good at-bats so we can play him at second knowing that we're going to be solid there and we can keep Enrique in center field and then move Marwin to give Xander an off day or Raffy an off day or Bobby an off day," Cora said. "It's funny because when you talk about Marwin, he's the guy giving everyone an off day, but he's still an every-day player. We just move him around."
With the Yankees struggling out of the gate and Tampa Bay's weakened pitching rotation following the trade of Blake Snell and the departure of Charlie Morton, Boston sees an opportunity to make a strong run at a playoff spot this season.
Ace Chris Sale continues to progress through his rehab from Tommy John surgery, inching closer to throwing off a mound after an occurrence of neck stiffness and a bout with COVID-19 delayed his progress. Meanwhile, Eduardo Rodriguez looks strong in the early part of the season, with a 4-0 record and a 3.52 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in four starts. Much of the season's success will hinge on the back of the rotation, with the spotlight on Nick Pivetta and Garrett Richards. While Pivetta has been solid -- posting a 2.93 ERA in six games since joining Boston via trade last August -- Richards has struggled, with a 6.48 ERA in four starts so far in 2021.
At least in the early part of the season, though, Cora said his main issue is having too many options to slot into the day's lineup.
"That's the biggest challenge, when to unplug somebody or when to plug somebody, but I think it's very similar to what we did in 2018," Cora said. "Our leadoff hitter then was Mookie Betts and people see it that way, but besides that, the rest of the guys were platoon guys that we tried to maximize their abilities."
Yes, Betts is gone, but Boston hopes that the depth of its roster can spark that 2018 playoff magic again.