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Red Sox' Title Defense Is In Grave Danger

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The date: March 11. The problem: The Red Sox' title defense is in danger. Grave danger.

Oh, wait, no. Not that title defense. Not the one with the big trophy that has all those flags, and not the one with the parade and all of that fanfare.

We're talking about their Grapefruit League title defense, of course.

After tearing up the Grapefruit League with a 22-9 record last year, the Red Sox had the best record in all of baseball in spring training. Those wins were, of course, meaningless, but they nevertheless had new manager Alex Cora half-jokingly boasting about "the frigging best record in baseball."

This year, the picture is a bit more grim.

Through 16 spring games, the Red Sox are just 6-10. They currently sit in dead last in the vaunted Grapefruit League standings. The title defense appears to be over before it ever really began.

For shame.

While that win-loss record is once against completely and utterly meaningless, some issues do stand out. Namely, Boston's pitching thus far in the spring has been bad. Very bad.

The Red Sox' team ERA is at 6.09. That's fourth-worst in all of baseball and dead last in the Grapefruit League.

The Red Sox' starters' ERA is at 6.06. That is to somewhat be expected when the likes of Chris Sale, David Price and Nathan Eovaldi have yet to make a spring start. (Rick Porcello has made one start, while Eduardo Rodriguez's three starts are most among actual members of the Boston rotation.) Starters have only thrown 32.2 innings, and only eight of those innings have come from a member of the presumed starting rotation. From that standpoint, well, it's no big deal that Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez and Josh Smith have been bad as starters thus far in spring training.

But the bullpen? The bullpen's been grisly. Gruesome. Ghastly.

In 73.2 more innings than the starters, the Red Sox relievers own a combined ERA of 6.09, and they have a 1.740 WHIP -- the second-worst mark across all of baseball this spring. Opponents have posted a .904 OPS against Red Sox relievers, the highest-such mark in baseball, and the .392 OBP against Red Sox relievers is likewise the highest mark in MLB this spring.

In terms of actual expected members of the Boston bullpen:

Tyler Thornburg has a 15.75 ERA and a 4.000 WHIP in four outings (4 innings).

Matt Barnes, the potential closer, has a 27.00 ERA and a 4.000 WHIP in his lone inning of work, during which he allowed three runs on four hits.

Brian Johnson, who pitched in 25 relief outings for Boston last year, has a 10.80 ERA and a 2.100 WHIP in two outings (3.1 innings).

Brandon Workman has a 7.20 ERA and a 1.800 WHIP in five outings (5 innings).

Hector Velazquez has a 10.80 ERA and a 2.100 WHIP in three outings (6.2 innings).

Ryan Brasier and Heath Hembree have yet to pitch in a game. Joe Kelly is gone. Craig Kimbrel remains unemployed.

Red Sox pitching has now allowed 40 runs over the past five games, and with the offense producing just seven runs during that stretch, it's led to a five-game losing streak.

Again, the losses don't matter, except that the Red Sox now must come to grips with the fact that they're not going to walk out of Florida as back-to-back Grapefruit League champs a few weeks from now. Mentally and emotionally, they're likely equipped to handle that hit ... but it won't be easy.

But coming off a season where their bullpen was a big question mark prior to the triumphant turn of events in October, it's clear that the one major area of need for improvement through the remainder of spring training can be found in the same place.

Opening Day -- and the real title defense -- is just 17 days away.

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