Alex Cora returned to the Boston Red Sox this season without Mookie Betts, but despite the absence of this generation’s star from the top of the lineup, the manager sees parallels to the 2018 team he led to the World Series title.

Like the 2018 team, the Red Sox will have to rely on a complete team to win.

That’s one thing I disagree with, guys, talking about 2018 because we had to move first base, second base, third base and behind the plate, Cora said. We had the same situation. Yes, of course you had one of the best players in the Major League and one of the best hitters in the Major League, but beyond that we had to mix it up. I don’t think it’s that different.

But a lot has changed since the championship team. Cora and the Red Sox parted ways for a year while he was suspended for his role in the theft of autographs by the Houston Astros. After missing the playoffs in 2019, Boston sent Betts to Los Angeles in 2020, where he is now one of the faces of baseball with the defending champion Dodgers. The only remaining starters in Boston’s championship core are pinch-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. crosses the field for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Betts is still a concern for many Red Sox fans who had hoped that Boston would be able to strike a deal to keep the homegrown superstar. Instead, the team not only trades Betts, but also moves the three years and $96 million remaining on David Price’s contract as a left wing striker to the same deal to create financial flexibility for the future. But even though it’s only the end of April, Boston is already at the top of the American League East, surprising fans and baseball observers with a 14-9 record, three games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays.

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Another difference between the 2021 Red Sox and the 2018 squad: The director of baseball, Haim Bloom. Bloom’s long-term vision is to build an organization on the East Coast similar to the Dodgers – one that focuses on depth and versatility, while creating financial opportunities to throw the occasional big pitch.

Symbolically, Bloom & Co. signed the Enrique Hernandez utility from Los Angeles in February. Boston’s front office identified Hernandez as a priority free agent target after the last spot on the team’s 2020 roster, a player who represented the archetype of the team’s roster strategy because of his ability to play multiple positions. Hernandez hit .250/.295/.432 in the leadoff position and defended above average in center field, at second base and as a shortstop.

Building on that versatility, the Red Sox have benefited from contributions from unexpected sources so far. Infielder Christian Arroyo – a 2013 first-round pick of the Giants who played a key role in the trade that sent Evan Longoria from Tampa Bay to San Francisco – continues to play second base in the lineup, batting .296/.345/.426 in 17 games, after entering the season with a career line of .219/.283/.360 in 85 games. In addition, reliever Garrett Whitlock, a Rule 5 pick of the New York Yankees who is considered a potential starter by the administration, has been a revelation in the bullpen so far, allowing no runs and striking out 14 in 11⅓ innings in five games.

By building the team around players like Hernandez and Marvin Gonzalez, who have played at every position this season except center field and catcher, Cora can rotate his lineup based on match-ups and the team’s best hitters.

Christian Arroyo helped us not move some guys around too much. I think Enrique is playing more in midfield right now than we expected, but the way Christian and Marvin are playing is helping us, Cora said. We have our defensive numbers. We really think we’re solid defensively every day, no matter who we’re playing against, and at the same time we try to maximize our offense and keep our balance by splitting up our left-handers and using Marvin as a changeup depending on the opponent, what we have in the bullpen and where we’re using him in the lineup.

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Martinez admits that this iteration of the Red Sox will struggle to match the 2018 World Series, but he is confident that this group can be a dynamic offense.

This 2018 team was a special one. It’s hard to compete with this team, Martinez said. In the 18th, I measured whether we could win the game. Did we get this chance? Did this opportunity arise? … In every game this season, we’ve always had the chance, win or lose, to score that goal, that game-changing goal. Last year, I felt like we didn’t have that.

If Boston hopes to make the playoffs, it will need a consistent performance from the leadoff spot, and Martinez will re-emerge as one of the best hitters in the sport after a mediocre 2020. Martinez is hitting .370/.446/.753 with seven homers and 21 RBI in 21 games in the majors. The lineup continues to lean on the offensive trio of Bogaerts, outfielder Alex Verdugo, who has a 133 OPS+ since replacing Betts, and Devers.

I think we have a very good attack now too. We had one of the best hitters with Mookie in ’18, but we also have other key players like [Verdugo] and Kike, Martinez said. If Christian Arroyo handles the ball like he does, that’s a big advantage, and he can really make an impact on this team. Gods and Devers. They’re going on strike.

The officials are aware that the team needs better numbers from the leadoff position, and hitters like first baseman Bobby Dalbec and outfielders Hunter Renfroy and Frenchy Cordero are struggling to generate much of the production. So far, the team’s depth has made up for its lack of offensive production.

How a new generation of players is changing the culture of the MLB. Jun Lee

We like combinations, but with Christian, he’s not having any luck at the moment with hits, but he’s becoming a good player, so we can play him in the second line because we know we’re solid there and keep Enrique in midfield and then move Marvin to give Xander a day off, or Raffy a day off, or Bobby a day off, Cora said. It’s funny because when it comes to Marvin, he gives everyone the day off, but he still plays every day. We’re just putting it off.

With the Yankees struggling to get going and a weakened pitching rotation following the Blake Snell trade and Charlie Morton’s departure, Boston is looking to contend for a playoff spot this season.

Ace Chris Sale continues to make progress after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He was about to fall off the hill after a stiff neck and a COVID-19 attack slowed his progress. Eduardo Rodriguez has started the season well with a 4-0 record, 3.52 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in four starts. Much of the success of the season will depend on the back end of the rotation, with Nick Pivetta and Garrett Richards at the forefront. While Pivetta has been solid – with a 2.93 ERA in six games since coming to Boston via trade last August – Richards has struggled, with a 6.48 ERA in four games started so far in 2021.

At least early in the season, Cora says his biggest problem is that there are too many options to fit into the daily lineup.

That’s the biggest challenge when you unplug someone or when you plug someone in, but I think it’s very similar to what we did in 2018, Cora said. Our main hitter at that point was Mookie Betts, and people see him that way, but other than that, the other guys were platoon guys that we tried to do as well as we could.

Yes, Betts is gone, but Boston is hoping the depth of their roster can revive the playoff magic in 2018.

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