By Dan Roche

SEATTLE (CBS) — The 2018 Red Sox were on a mission from Oct. 22, 2017 all the way through to the final out of Game 5 of the World Series in L.A. on Oct. 28, 2018.

That first date is the day that John Henry, Tom Werner, Mike Gordon and Dave Dombrowski hired Alex Cora to be their next manager. Cora brought a mindset with him from his one year as bench coach in Houston, a philosophy of winning every game and having fun while doing it. His team went on to win a franchise record 108 games in the regular season and then added 11 more victories en route to a World Series crown.

Now, it’s on to 2019 as Cora and the Sox look to become the first team to repeat as World Series champs since the 1999-2000 Yankees. Let’s take a look at the roster that will begin the title defense in Seattle.

Positional Players

Catchers (2): Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez

Infielders (6): 1B Mitch Moreland, SS Xander Bogaerts, 3B Rafael Devers, UTIL Brock Holt, UTIL Eduardo Nunez, 1B Sam Travis

Outfielders (4): Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., J.D. Martinez

Injured List (3): Steve Pearce, Dustin Pedroia, Marco Hernandez

What struck me from Cora’s first day as Sox manager was his aggressive philosophy with the offense. In 2017 the Astros won with a George Springer-Alex Bregman-Jose Altuve-Carlos Correa lineup right out of the chute. Take your hacks, attack, and put your opponent on their heels. It worked in Houston, as the Astros won the World Series, and Cora brought that same mantra to Boston with the same results.

He wanted Mookie Betts to lead off, swing early at strikes, swing aggressively, and spark the team. Mookie did that and more en route to winning the AL MVP and a batting crown.

Going with a lineup of Betts-Benintendi-Martinez-Moreland/Pearce-Bogaerts it paid off handsomely for Cora. The Sox led the American League in runs, hits, doubles, RBI, batting average and OPS. Cora is switching things up this season, flip-flopping Betts and Benintendi to give Mookie more RBI possibilities.

Pearce will start the season on the injured list with a calf strain, so Sam Travis is on the roster. Meanwhile, Dustin Pedroia has been slowed down by Cora and company so he won’t be with the team to start. Sandy Leon is the odd man out in the catching rotation, but he’s expected to begin the year in Pawtucket after clearing waivers.

JBJ, Devers and Swihart all had great springs at the plate. If one or two of them carry that into the season, then the offense should be just as productive this year.

Pitchers

Starters (5): LHP Chris Sale, LHP David Price, RHP Nathan Eovaldi, RHP Rick Porcello, LHP Eduardo Rodriguez

Bullpen (8): RHP Matt Barnes, RHP Ryan Brasier, RHP Colten Brewer, RHP Heath Hembree, LHP Brian Johnson, RHP Tyler Thornburg, RHP Hector Velazquez, RHP Brandon Workman

Restricted List (1): RHP Steven Wright

On paper, Boston’s rotation is one of the best in baseball. It will begin as Sale-Eovaldi-E-Rod-Porcello-Price due to a late-spring illness for Price. Look for Velazquez and Johnson to make some starts too as Cora wants to get all these starters some extra rest after a lengthy run last season.

There are four thing’s I’m curious to see with the pitching staff:

– Can Sale stay strong all season?
– Can Eovaldi carry his heroic postseason pitching into 2019?
– Can E-Rod become what everyone thinks he can be?
– Can Price be the dominating ace he was in the ALCS and World Series?

But, of course, the biggest question mark is Boston’s bullpen. Gone are the 57 games finished and 42 saved by Craig Kimbrel in 2018, and set-up man Joe Kelly will be pitching elsewhere.

However, Cora believes Dana LeVangie, Brian Bannister, Dave Bush, Craig Bjornson, all the machinery/analytics/numbers and the catchers can get Barnes, Brasier and the rest of the bunch to produce and close out games. It’s a huge challenge, and a giant question mark heading into the new season.

Now, I will say that I’m a firm believer that it’s necessary to have a firmly established closer at the back-end of a successful bullpen. I also think that not everyone can close — especially in Boston. Kimbrel, for all of his struggles in the postseason, was reliable in the regular season.

Can Barnes and/or Brasier or someone else do it? I think they can. We just enter the season with uncertainty. But these things tend to work themselves out, as it did in 2013 when the Sox went through Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey and Junichi Tazawa in the closer’s role until Koji Uehara finally emerged. It may take time with this bullpen. However, the Sox do think they have enough arms up here and on the farm to eventually find someone. The problem is that blown saves can be crushing to the morale of a team, and it can’t go on too long.

But – the bullpen was a question mark all of last season as well. All the way to 108 wins. Cora basically said, “We got this” last year and he’s saying it again this season. He gets the benefit of the doubt in my book. You have to trust him.

Let the games begin and I hope you enjoy this new chapter from start to finish every day.

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