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The 6 players who will determine how far the Sox go

The Sox will go as far as these half-dozen guys will take them.

MLB: Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox
He’ll be back soon.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Six games into 2018, the Red Sox look a lot like they did in 2017. Great pitching, so-so offense and a lingering sense of dread over the way the Red Sox have been winning. The question is: Is this team different enough from last year’s that we won’t need to worry? Or is it going to be more of the same going forward?

I think there’s no way to know for sure now, because we don’t have a representative sample size, but the early indications on offense weren’t great until yesterday. There are reasons to be optimistic, especially for the biggest-ticket guy: J.D. Martinez was brought aboard to be a sparkplug for the batting order and will almost certainly do so. As far as free agent acquisitions go, it would be hard to find someone in whom I had more confidence to put up his projected numbers. He’s a baller through and through.

The same is true for Mookie Betts alone among Sox position players, as the rest of the gang all has question marks around the question of how good each of them actually are. Matt’s take, which is here, gets into the problem in detail. To add my two cents, I believe the three biggest wild cards for the Sox on offense this year are Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr., and the results for this crew so far have been decidedly mixed.

Bogaerts has been wonderful, and has ignited excitement about his career path that’s been latent since the days of the Betts/Bogaerts debates. Certainly, the Bogaerts evangelists have exhausted themselves taking victory laps in the first week, and I can hardly blame them for their excitement at the return of their king. I want them to be right, but it’s not even Patriots’ Day -- even in early June, these games, right now, will be a distant memory. I want Bogey to be right, but it’s too early to tell whether he’s certainly fixed.

Bentendi has started the season in a pronounced funk, and while I’m not too worried about him hitting for a decent baseline slash going forward, there’s a streakiness to his game that’s starting to get my attention. Outside of a near-miss on what would have been a sure double against Tampa on Saturday, he hasn’t really been close to doing much, which shouldn’t be possible with his swing, and his skills. In fact, I scarcely believe it is possible, which is why I expect Beni to rebound soon. His ceiling might not be as high as I’d hoped this season, but there’s no way he’s going to lie on the floor all year.

Bradley is the toughest case, because his deficiencies are the most pronounced and least negotiable, so to speak. His historical production has been been based on his notorious hot streaks, and there’s never a guarantee another one is coming. Based on the depth of his slumps, my fear for him is far more pronounced than that of mine for Benintendi.

I think the offebse will go as far as these three take them. They are the biggest wild cards on a club that may or may not be the best team in baseball, depending on the day, and they have the largest range of outcomes, both in degree and volume. Someone like Bobby Poyner has a bigger range of outcomes than they do, but in his limited role, his overall exposure is limited. Those three are the difference makers, especially on offense.

There are some starting pitchers who are in the same position, and they’re more or less the same ones they were last year, when they pitched well. The three starters I’d put in this group are Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello.

If it seems weird to put the 2016 American League Cy Young Award winning into a club of erratic performers, so be it, but Porcello’s 2016 was a known outlier as it happened. Last year was less good, and it would have stuck out more if it wasn’t for another man on this list: Pomeranz, who was quite wonderful in 2017. For the purposes of this analogy, Pomeranz was, for the whole of 2017, this year’s Bogey through six games, and perhaps proof that the team needs more than one big contributor to reach the promised land.

All of this brings us to the truly forgotten man of the 2018 Red Sox: Rodriguez. This will probably be the defining year of E-Rod’s career, going forward. He’s 25 years old and has been good when he can pitch injury-free. The Red Sox are bringing him along slowly to ensure he’s as close to 100 percent as possible before bringing him back. If he is able to pitch for the entire season, his performance could be the determining factor in how far the Sox go this year. I’m happy about the delirious starting pitching we’ve had so far, but I’m happier to hope for the best and plan for the worst. It’s worked out pretty well so far.

Still, it’s only when Rodriguez is back that the team can be honestly said to be at its strongest. Of all the wild cards on the team, he’s the one that could win the Sox hand after hand after hand, if he’s right -- if not the whole damn thing.