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Cora, Red Sox willing to bet Martinez improves

BOSTON — Alex Cora is expecting to see the J.D. Martinez of old again in 2021.

And the Red Sox manager won’t be surprised if Andrew Benintendi and Eduardo Rodríguez bounce back with him.

Cora predicted better things from some of the Boston players who had an off year during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when he was serving his sign-stealing suspension and the ballclub stumbled to last place.

“I’m not a gambling man, but I’ll bet you $1 that J.D. will have a better season,” Cora said in a call with reporters Thursday. “I’m watching a lot of games and videos, it was a different hitter. … I know he recognized toward the end of the season what was wrong with him, but he wasn’t able to take it to the batter’s box.”

Martinez finished fourth in AL MVP voting in 2018, when he hit 43 homers and led the league with 130 RBIs while helping the Red Sox win a franchise-record 108 games and the World Series. The team finished third the next year, but Martinez was still pretty good, batting .304 with 36 homers and 105 RBIs.

Even accounting for the shortened season this year, Martinez posted the worst numbers of his career: seven homers, 27 RBIs and a .213 average.

Benintendi, the AL rookie of the year in 2017, batted .103 in 14 games before ending the season on Aug. 11 with a rib cage strain.

Cora said he wants to see Benintendi focus less on home run hitting and more on speed and defense.

“I’ll take Andrew Benintendi the complete player,” Cora said. “The Andrew that we saw in October 2018, that’s the Andrew we want. … If we get that guy back, we’re in a good position.”

Cora was encouraged to see the video of Rodríguez pitching off a mound. The 27-year-old left-hander missed all of last season with coronavirus-related myocarditis.

“It’s not a joking matter,” Cora said. “We know that it’s a very serious situation, and I’m glad that it’s working out.”

Chris Sale is also making progress in his return from Tommy John surgery. He is expected to miss the start of the season, if it starts on time, but could still be back some time in the first half of the year.

“Our medical staff doesn’t want to put a timetable on it,” Cora said. “But at the same time, we’re very happy that he’s progressing the right way.”

Cora said Matt Barnes is currently penciled in as the closer. The 30-year-old righty had nine saves in 13 opportunities last year, most of them after Brandon Workman was traded to Philadelphia.

“If the season started tomorrow and we had the lead in the ninth inning and we haven’t used Matt in the seventh or eighth, I’d flip him the ball,” Cora said. “Matt Barnes is one of the best relievers the last few years in the big leagues and I have total trust he can do the job.”

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