Rivera: Still not sold on the Red Sox

Alex Cora (left) has done a great job managing the Red Sox in his first season at the helm but the team has plenty of question marks. (Photo by the Associated Press)

I’ve always been one to keep my opinion to myself until I absolutely know which side to take in an argument. In other words, if my opinion is in between the middle of two different sides my opinion can’t possibly be clear. Right?

Then there’s the 2018 Red Sox, a team that can play .500 baseball for the remainder of the season and still win 100 games. The numbers are there but I’m still not entirely convinced this is truly a 100-win team.

Are they better than they were last year? Sure. The Alex Cora Red Sox with J.D. Martinez thumping in the middle of the order are far better than the John Farrell team of 2017. That’s clear to me.

Still, I’m not sure I’m ready to pencil these Red Sox into list of World Series contenders. For a team that’s on the verge of winning an unheard of amount of games, the Red Sox have too many question marks for me to consider them a true contender. At least that’s my initial thought.

The question marks start with the bullpen, which appears to be Dave Dombrowski’s achilles’ heel. While there was talk about Dombrowski making a move for a reliever at the trade deadline (2015 World Series champion Kelvin Herrera was rumored to be a guy the Red Sox were pushing for), nothing actually transpired. While Dombrowski might be comfortable standing pat and moving forward with the current group of relievers, I’m not so sure this team has the arms that it takes to seal a few one-run games in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series in October.

I’m comfortable with Craig Kimbrel as the closer but there’s nobody else that stands out to me as a pitcher that has the stones to silence the New York Yankees or the Houston Astros in the postseason. For a while I thought Joe Kelly would be the guy Cora would lean on as his reliable set-up man. I no longer feel that way, and with good reason(s).

Kelly mishandled the season opener in Tampa Bay and found his groove after that. He won Red Sox fans over (temporarily at least) when he beaned Tyler Austin of the Yankees (Austin was traded to Lynn native Derek Falvey’s Twins earlier this week) in April and invited him to the mound for a tussle (with a few choice words mixed in, I’m sure). Kelly’s ERA in April was 0.00. In May it was 0.63. In June? North of 8.00. In July? North of 12.00. As Dennis Eckersley would say, “yuck.”

The rest of the bullpen includes Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, Tyler Thornburg (finally) and Hector Velazquez. I don’t like my chances with any of those guys on that list clinging to a one-run lead against Minnesota in July. I definitely won’t like my chances with them against New York in October.

The starting rotation doesn’t have a ton to fall back on either. David Price pitched to his potential in Tuesday’s win against the Phillies but nobody knows who he’ll be in October. Is Price going to be the pitcher that allowed 10 runs at Yankee Stadium and beaned three batters in one inning at Kansas City, or is he the pitcher we saw Tuesday night? Rick Porcello (13-4) and Eduardo Rodriguez (11-3) have been good but Drew Pomeranz (1-4, 6.91 ERA) hasn’t been much to ride home about. Chris Sale is Chris Sale and although he was placed on the 10-day disabled-list Tuesday, it doesn’t seem to be anything too serious. The problem is it takes more than a dominant Sale to win a playoff series. Someone will have to answer the call.

Then there’s the infield. Mitch Moreland has come back down to earth after an All-Star start to the season. Dustin Pedroia’ s done for the season and surrenders his role to newcomer Ian Kinsler, who Pedroia (apparently) doesn’t particularly get along with. Brock Holt, who’s shockingly hitting the ball well, has never been (and never will be) and everyday player. Eduardo Nunez hasn’t carried the momentum he built at the end of last year when Dombrowski brought him on board from San Francisco. Rafael Devers is among the league leaders in errors at third base.
Jackie Bradley Jr. remains as a big question mark in the outfield. Bradley Jr.’s glove is among the best of the league and there’s no debating that. But are his defensive abilities worth the struggles at the plate? I’m not so sure they are.

Cora mentioned a few weeks ago that Bradley has been one of the team’s better hitters as of late. Yet he’s still batting just .213 and a string of bad games takes him back down under .200.

Promoting Rusney Castillo, who leads the Triple-A International League in hits, would seem like a logical option with Bradley’s struggles this season. But Castillo’s contract puts the Red Sox over the luxury tax and brings penalties the team isn’t interested in incurring. So, for better or worse (worse), the Red Sox are stuck with Bradley as their everyday centerfielder.

I’m not saying the Red Sox don’t stand a chance in October. There’s plenty to like about this team, from Mookie Betts and Martinez forming a 1-2 punch as dangerous as David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in its prime, to Sale pitching his way to Cy Young consideration (again), to Cora doing a tremendous job in his first season.

But for a group destined to win over 100 games, the Red Sox have a lot of question marks. Maybe too many question marks for fans to expect them to surpass what they did the past two seasons. Hopefully they answer some of those this weekend when the Yankees come to town.

Maybe these question marks turn into answers over the next two months. Maybe Kinsler brings the Red Sox bang for their buck. Maybe Kelly returns to his April/May form. Maybe Bradley Jr. goes on another one those tears that he hangs his hat on. And maybe I’ll write a column the end of September titled, “Cue the Duck Boats.” But for now, I’m cautiously optimistic.

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