CHICAGO — Who are the real Red Sox?
Are they the team that was hard to watch for the first month of the season or the group that has been tearing it up since, winning nine of 12?
The easy answer is somewhere in the middle. My answer is closer to the high side because of their starting pitching and the potential to get more from the offense.
Through Sunday, Sox starters were eighth in the American League with a 3.77 earned run average and in the upper half of the league in strikeouts (8.5 per nine innings) and strikeout to walk ratio (3.05).
Middle of the pack is solid considering the Sox went the bargain route in the offseason with Rich Hill (one year/$5 million) and Michael Wacha (one year/$7 million) and haven’t had Chris Sale all season.
The Sox are 9-4 in games started by Hill and Wacha, who have a combined 2.82 ERA.
Considering the unexpected loss of Sale to a cracked rib and then a mystery ailment, the rotation has been better than hoped and could even improve over time.
James Paxton has resumed throwing after a setback and could be an option after the All-Star break.
Connor Seabold and Josh Winckowski have presented themselves as viable choices at Triple A with 23-year-old righthander Brayan Bello now on the same path.
Sale? Maybe it’s 12 starts. Maybe it’s none. The Sox are suspiciously scant with information about their former ace. But even without him, they have enough rotation depth to compete over the course of the season.
The bullpen needs a reliable closer, but that has been true since last August. Matt Strahm seems like the most valid choice. Maybe Austin Davis? If the Sox continue to advance up the standings, Chaim Bloom owes them bullpen help, more sooner than later.
Offensively, it’s been two wildly different teams.
The Sox averaged 3.27 runs in their first 29 games and had an embarrassing .621 OPS. They have since averaged 6.58 runs with a .854 OPS.
The Sox had a .777 OPS last season and should be able to settle in around that mark again this season because there are so many opportunities to upgrade.
The Sox have the worst production at first base in the majors with only one home run and a .481 OPS. The league average is five homers and a .734 OPS.
Triston Casas has the fifth-highest OPS among Worcester players with at least 120 plate appearances. He has not bullied his way into the majors and needs to do that.
In the meantime the Sox can certainly do better than platooning Bobby Dalbec with Franchy Cordero. Maybe see if the Nationals will deal Josh Bell?
The Sox also have terrible production from their outfield with only six home runs and .585 OPS.
Kiké Hernández has picked it up in the last two weeks and has earned the right to stay in center.
Jackie Bradley Jr. has mashed at Fenway (.309 with an .883 OPS) and been mush on the road (.111 with a .331 OPS). What has been incredible defense in right field (6 DRS already) keeps him in the lineup.
Alex Verdugo has been in a fog all season, going back to spring training. He’s dropped from being a solid all-around player to leaving you wondering how the Sox didn’t get much of anything for Mookie Betts.
Alex Cora is fond of saying that competition brings out the best in players. Verdugo could stand some competition, maybe from Jarren Duran. Or even Rob Refsnyder.
The Sox arrived here Sunday night only four games out of a wild card spot. They have three games against the White Sox starting Tuesday before going home for five games against the Orioles and Reds.
They remain in position to continue climbing up. Nick Pivetta gets the White Sox on Tuesday night. He has allowed two earned runs over 22 innings in his last three starts, playing a big role in changing the course of the season.