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Viable second option

Utilityman Cora gives Sox insurance

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The simplest way to determine the value the Red Sox place on Alex Cora is to look at how they're paying him.

A little more than two weeks after the end of the last World Series, before he even could get a sniff of what he was worth on the open market, the Sox signed Cora to a two-year, $4 million deal. He can earn an additional $1 million per year, depending on how many games he plays -- $250,000 extra starting with 110 games, with an additional quarter-million at every 10-game increment after that up to 140 games.

Cora, a 31-year-old backup infielder, is being paid an average salary this season that is higher than the median salary of all but eight teams last season. The median salary of 17 teams last season was under $1 million.

Mark Loretta, who started at second for the Sox last season, got only a one-year, $2.5 million deal from the Astros, who plan to use him in a utility role. Ronnie Belliard, who played second base for the world champion Cardinals, signed a minor league deal with the Nationals ($750,000). Miguel Cairo, the Yankees' backup second baseman, is getting the same money in a big-league deal with the Bombers. Damion Easley is making a tick more ($850,000) from the Mets.

"It was a great deal," Cora said earlier this spring. "Two years ago, I came from my best season in LA, when I hit .260 [.264] with 10 home runs and almost 50 RBIs [47] and I was nontendered. If I had hit that last year, with any team, I'd be making $5 million or $6 million.

"But it is what it is. I became a utility player in Cleveland, and this is a better deal than I got two years ago. It was fair on both sides. I know they trust me. They know what I bring to the table.

"There are a lot of players without jobs. It's a tough market right now. I know there's a lot of money out there, but it's coming to the point that there's a lot of money on top, then they go with young guys in certain roles."

So why pay more than the going rate for Cora, who has been with the Sox since they acquired him from the Indians in July 2005 for little-used backup Ramon Vazquez? It's the price they're willing to pay for a premium safety net. Rookie Dustin Pedroia has been anointed the team's starting second baseman, but Cora is in the wings if the kid proves overmatched.

"It's his job to win, of course," Cora said. "We'll see how he performs, and I guess we'll go from there.

"You just prepare yourself like you always do. They have no worries about me. They know I always say that I'm a starting player, I'm an everyday guy, I prepare myself that way. If things don't happen the way everybody wants them -- Dustin does the job and plays second base every day -- then I'll be ready for the challenge."

It's not part of the job description that he reach out to Pedroia, he said, but, "That's who I am. If I see something I don't like, say while we're taking ground balls, I'll ask him why. I don't say, 'Do it this way.' But if he wants to take it, fine."

Cora remembers the help he got along the way with the Dodgers, not the least of which was offered by older brother Joey, the former big-league infielder who is now Ozzie Guillen's bench coach with the White Sox.

"I had Jeff Reboulet when I was coming up, Dave Hansen, a lot of veterans around me in LA," Cora said. "They were great with me. I always had somebody older than me. Joey played in the majors, but he didn't baby-sit me.

"So I'll do it with [Pedroia], I'll do it with anybody. A rookie, a 10-year veteran, I'm going to speak up.

"God gave me some talent to play defense. I can get away with some stuff other people can't. I can't expect people to be able do everything I do. Alex Gonzalez can't expect people to do the things he does. I try to get a feeling of what [another player] feels, and go from there."

Pedroia said Cora couldn't have been more helpful.

"Awesome," Pedroia said. "He's the ultimate professional. He's helped me out so much, both defensively and offensively. He's told me to relax at the plate. It's good to have a guy like him.

"Everybody I talk to says he's an unbelievable teammate, and I understand why. Ever since I've known him, he's done anything possible to help me be a better player, and you never really see that these days. He wants to win, and so do I, and I think on this team, we all understand that."

Historic season
A native of Caguas, Puerto Rico, Cora is beginning his 10th season in the big leagues. He has played in 96 games each of the last two seasons. Last season, he played short (63 games, 47 starts), second (18, 10 starts), and third (11, 4 starts). When Gonzalez went on the DL with a strained oblique, Cora started in 11 straight games but batted just .128 (5 for 39), as the entire team, which was missing Manny Ramírez and David Ortiz over much of that stretch, went into an offensive funk (.190 average).

Cora finished the season with a .238 average, 1 home run, and 18 RBIs. He has 4 home runs in 485 at-bats over the last two seasons. Only seven players with at least 450 at-bats have hit fewer in that span. A short bat has kept him from continuing as a starter, as he was his last two seasons with the Dodgers.

But his defense, on both sides of the bag, is exemplary. He went 40 straight games (26 starts) last summer without an error, and made just 7 errors for the season (6 in 239 chances at short). He was a key part of what was statistically the best fielding team in big-league history (.989, 66 errors). There were 108 games last season in which the Sox didn't make an error, second most in big-league history to Seattle's 112 in 2003.

With last season's double-play combination having moved on, the Sox aren't likely to approach that number this season.

"What Alex did last season was great," Cora said. "Mark was a solid second baseman, and Youks [Kevin Youkilis] is one of the best defensive first basemen in the league.

"We can't say now that because we don't have Alex and Mark, our goals are going to be lower, our expectations are going to be lower. Hey, we led the majors in fielding, we got to keep shooting for that. We had the best defense in the majors and with the added offense, we've become a complete team. Last year, we ran out of gas a little bit with our offense.

"This is a complete team, it's a good baseball team. We've got speed. We're going to have speed at the top and bottom of the lineup. Offensively, we've got a lot of options. J.D. [Drew] brings a lot to the table, not only offensively but the way he runs the bases, the way he plays defense, and with the quality of at-bats he puts on.

"That presence we're going to have behind Manny, it's going to help Manny more. It was getting to the point in certain situations last season where they pitched to David but they didn't want to pitch to Manny, and it's going to come to the point where they might not pitch to both. Somebody has to pick them up, and having J.D. Drew behind them is going to be huge for us."

And what does Cora bring? His glove, his intelligence, and his attitude; this winter, he trimmed more than 10 pounds and a few points off his percentage of body fat by cutting back on his diet and running a lot more.

"I'm not a superstar, so I know my role," he said. "I know I have to be a good player, first and foremost, but I have to be a good teammate. Whatever I give the team on the field, I've got to give in the clubhouse, too. If I do that, I'm doing my job."