The Inevitable Return of Alex Cora to Boston

In the least shocking development of the offseason thus far, the Red Sox have rehired Alex Cora to manage the team. Not only did the move to bring back the previously suspended skipper appear to be inevitable, but news of it leaked onto Twitter just 22 minutes after Decision Desk HQ became the first verified outfit to call the presidential election in favor of Joe Biden. This was a Hall of Fame-caliber Friday news dump, designed to minimize the attention paid to a transaction that’s clearly defiant, if not cynical.

Put it this way: I’m no Jon Heyman when it comes to the inside baseball of Major League Baseball, but I tweeted a week ago that the Red Sox not rehiring Cora to manage would be an even bigger shock than the White Sox’s strange rehiring of Tony La Russa, who hasn’t managed since 2011. Unlike the situation in Chicago, where owner Jerry Reinsdorf appears to have unilaterally decided to bring back an old crony without interviewing other candidates (or at least announcing that they had done so), the Red Sox were reported to have interviewed several MLB coaches including Mike Bell (Twins), Don Kelly (Pirates), Carlos Mendoza (Yankees), James Rowson (Marlins), Skip Schumaker (Padres), Luis Urueta (Diamondbacks), and Will Venable (Cubs). But despite that crowded field — which grew to “at least nine candidates” who received first-round interviews — it’s fair to wonder the extent to which this was an ownership-driven decision.

The 45-year-old Cora, who led the Red Sox to a championship in 2018, his first season at the helm, “mutually agreed to part ways” with the team back on January 14, the day after Commissioner Rob Manfred released the results of his office’s investigation into the illegal sign-stealing efforts of the Astros. While serving as bench coach for Houston in 2016-17, Cora was found to have called the replay room to obtain signs, information that was relayed to hitters, and to have participated in the trash can banging scheme as well. “Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players’ conduct,” wrote Manfred, who while suspending general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season withheld punishment of Cora pending the results of a parallel (but far less extensive) investigation into the Red Sox’s sign-stealing activities.

The optics on Cora’s continued employment were bad enough, however, for the Sox brass to turn the page, at least temporarily. Principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner, CEO Sam Kennedy, and Cora released a joint statement that they “collectively decided that it would not be possible for Alex to effectively lead the club going forward and we mutually agreed to part ways,” even while calling Cora “a special person and a beloved member” of the team. Manfred did not release the results of the Red Sox investigation until April 22, at which time he did not impose additional discipline on Cora beyond a suspension that matched those of Luhnow and Hinch. “I do not find that then-Manager Alex Cora, the Red Sox coaching staff, the Red Sox front office, or most of the players on the 2018 Red Sox knew or should have known that Watkins was utilizing in-game video,” wrote Manfred in his report.

In the wake of that finding, it seemed like only a matter of time before Cora’s return given the adoration with which the Sox brass continued to shower him with publicly even before the team took the field under successor Ron Roenicke, that while stressing that it was Cora’s actions in Houston that forced his ouster. Roenicke was doomed from the start by a roster weakened by the trades of Mookie Betts and David Price, a rotation further hit by the losses of Chris Sale to Tommy John surgery and Eduardo Rodriguez to post-COVID-19 complications, and minimal offseason expenditures due to the team’s situation regarding their Competitive Balance Tax status. The 2020 Red Sox never really had a chance; they finished 24-36, last in the AL East and outside the expanded playoff field. Roenicke was fired on the final day of the season.

Though Chaim Bloom had said in May that bringing Cora back “was not on our radar” for 2021, ultimately he was included in the interview process. Bloom and general manager Brian O’Halloran flew down to Puerto Rico to meet with Cora on October 30. As of Thursday, the field had reportedly narrowed down to two finalists, Cora and Sam Fuld, the Phillies’ player information coordinator.

It wasn’t hard to read the significance of the pairing. Bloom, who was hired last October, had never worked with Cora in-season, unlike the rest of the Sox brass around him. In his 14-year tenure with the Rays, Bloom had developed a close bond with Fuld, who during his eight-year major league career spent 2011-13 with Tampa Bay, helping the team to two postseason appearances and emerging as a hard-nosed, analytically minded player. At the conclusion of his playing days following the 2017 season, the Stanford University-educated Fuld joined the Phillies’ front office, working with players and coaches to “integrate the use of information in all areas of on-field performance and preparation.” He quickly drew managerial consideration, interviewing for the Blue Jays’ opening following the 2018 season before withdrawing his name. He was later connected to a number of other managerial vacancies, but last fall declined interviews with the Cubs, Mets, and Pirates.

It’s not fair to Bloom, who has a reputation for collaborative leadership rather than a reputation as a “my-way-or-the-highway kind of person,” to use the words of The Athletic’s Chad Jennings, to assume that the hiring of Cora was a decision made against his wishes. Yet it’s undeniable that the 38-year-old Fuld, a New Hampshire native who grew up a Red Sox fan, appeared to be a natural fit for the job, but even so Boston went with the devil that most of them knew rather than the one that only one of them knew. The math on that one ain’t hard.

Experience — particularly experience in leading a club to 108 wins and then a World Series victory in your first year on the job, that while thriving in the Fenway fishbowl where so many other managers have floundered — has value, and if the Red Sox saw Fuld as unlikely to measure up to the achievements of his predecessor, then that’s understandable, particularly as the team has made clear that it doesn’t regard its 2018 results as tainted. And Cora, who has long been regarded as a keen baseball mind and a bright star among young managers, has served the punishment imposed upon him.

Even so, it’s fair to be furious with Manfred for not imposing even harsher discipline on those connected to the sign-stealing, including Hinch (who was hired to manage the Tigers last week) and Cora. As the reactions to the Astros’ advancement to within one win of the World Series showed, there’s a lot of pent-up anger towards that team, including frustration that they were not subjected to a full season exposed to the enmity of opposing fans. For whatever Cora’s merits as a leader may be, he exhibited bad judgment in Houston, and perhaps Boston as well; Manfred may have exonerated him in the latter instance, but few in the industry believe that the commissioner pursued his investigation into the Red Sox with as much vigor as he did that of the Astros.

I’m not here to say that Cora’s punishment should have been a death sentence to his managerial career, but a prohibition on rejoining his former team so quickly might have been in order (whether it would have withstood a legal challenge might be another matter). I’m always happy to see the ranks of minority managers increased, because this sport needs to do much better in that area. But I can’t help but feel as though this is the Red Sox having the last laugh, not just at Manfred, but at anybody who cared about their actions and those of the Astros, and gambling that the timing of this news (which wasn’t officially confirmed until exactly 5 pm on Friday) will keep it off radars while the blowback subsides.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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sadtrombonemember
1 year ago

So I kind of get why they didn’t hire Fuld. While you do get former players moving directly from a Fuld-type position into a managerial role like Craig Counsell or AJ Hinch, it is much more logical to have them move from coaching first.

Beyond that I find the process of Cora stepping away and then getting rehired by the Red Sox gross. If this was what they really wanted, they should have just let him get suspended and let him return at the end of it, and taken brunt of public anger like adults. This whole thing about having them part ways for a year to manage the public anger, only for him to rejoin a year later, even though that’s exactly what would have happened if he had never left…the whole thing is incredibly cynical.

And this is before we consider that this is a guy who was heavily involved with a scandal that cost his former organization dearly. The Red Sox seem to have decided that because it didn’t hurt them, it isn’t their problem. Maybe they trusted him enough to override those concerns but you would think that would cause at least a little bit of soul-searching.

Joe Joemember
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Public anger seems to blow things out of proportion these days. Service time cheating (this impacts games much more than sign stealing), paying minor leaguers less than a living wage, and furloughing/letting go low paid employees are much more egregious acts than sign stealing.

MikeDmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

It appears that public anger didn’t blow things out of proportion, because if it did, Cora would not be back. As I wrote elsewhere, Cora and chiefly Hinch were the beneficiaries of no fans in the parks last year. The public’s anger would have been much more palpable, and would have become a constant story line in 2020, thus making it very unlikely either would have been brought back so soon.

Joe Joemember
1 year ago
Reply to  MikeD

As you focused on the sign stealing/suggest public anger would have kept Hinch and Cora from getting jobs/ignored more important issues, it appears public anger still is focused on the small things instead of the big things.

baubo
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Given the neutral to even positive response towards Cora from the media both during the hiring process and today’s news, it does make you wonder how much this whole sign stealing matter in the overall baseball universe as opposed to the internet bubble that have been calling for WS forfeits and lifetime expulsions.

If you compare this scandal with a similar one, the Saints Bountygate scandal in the NFL, you had essentially similar suspensions and subsequent return to the NFL among the major guilty parties, the most important of which Sean Payton and Gregg Williams are still employed at their original jobs nearly a decade later. So really what the Red Sox and Tigers did should be considered normal. As will whoever pays for Springer and Brantley to hit for them next year

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

So, to clarify, I’ve never really disapproved of a team hiring a guy who has served his suspension, and I think the suspension was fair. I think that from the team’s perspective there are real questions about hiring someone who just cost a previous team all kinds of assets and that I would be very, very wary about hiring them.

Frankly I thought it was fine that the Eagles hired a repentant and formerly jailed Michael Vick after going to prison. If I think that, then I think it’s fine (ethically) they hired Cora and Hinch. I just don’t think I’d want to.

The thing with Cora, where he slides right back into the same role, I guess I just find the whole managing-the-PR aspect of it incredibly distasteful. They should have just told the world they believed he wouldn’t do it again and he was a valued asset to the team. That’s clearly what they believed, but that’s not at all what they said.

I don’t really know what the media’s response has been, but I imagine that everyone is a bit distracted at the moment, and the Tigers hiring Hinch has kind of already blown the newsworthiness of this.

baubo
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Well the Red Sox lost no assets even after the MLB investigation into them. So if that’s your argument then you should applaud Cora for being capable of minimizing any damage to the Red Sox for his part in the scandal in Houston and allegedly in Boston. And that him getting rehired makes perfect sense in that aspect.

As for the PR thing of it has it really mattered ever how a team dealt with bad pr of a signing? Not like the Cubs or the Yankees were super smooth in how they handled getting Chapman. As long as Cora delievers results no fan is going to care

drewsylvaniamember
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yup. I expect I will not want to hear from Cora, as anything he says may come off as disingenuous now.

MLBtoPDX#2024
1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

Bounty-Gate is not similar. It wasn’t cheating only attempting to injure players when having an attempt at a tackle. Stealing Signs, knowing what pitch will be coming, is definitely much different and more nefarious. You can sign steal all the time but ya can’t know when a bounty tackle will be coming your way. Alex Cora is a disgrace and has only disgraced the BoSox even more.

baubo
1 year ago
Reply to  MLBtoPDX#2024

I think this may be the first time I have ever heard someone seriously say trying to hurt an opposing player enough so they can no longer play, and has to be replaced by a less competent replacement, is not a form of cheating.

Joe Joemember
1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

This is one of the reasons why I say things are blown out of proportion. MLB teams operation in general during a pandemic seems much more nefarious than sign stealing.

MLBtoPDX#2024
1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

It’s American Football they hit to injure all the time, don’t be ignorant

egregious comment
1 year ago
Reply to  MLBtoPDX#2024

“ONLY ATTEMPTING TO INJURE PLAYERS”

inject this into my veins

I also enjoy how not knowing when a bounty tackle is coming somehow makes it less problematic.

Jason Bmember
1 year ago

“egregious comment” highlighting the most…well, egregious comments? I’m totally here for it.

Bigperm8645member
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

For real, what kind of integrity does Cora have? TWO cheating teams he was a part of? And one year vacation was his punishment? Cool, cool cool cool.

Dave from DCmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Bigperm8645

“Community” was a great show.

drewsylvaniamember
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

John Henry’s been callous & amoral for 40 years–why would he change now?