History lesson: In 2008, the Red Sox lost David Ortiz for nearly two months in the middle of the season due to a wrist injury. Without the pillar in the middle of their lineup, the Sox offense was expected to take a considerable hit -- and indeed it did.
With Ortiz out for all of June that year and most of July, the team went from scoring 5.86 runs per game to 5.04 -- a noteworthy drop of 14.0 percent. Yet during that same period, the team went 26-19 -- a .578 winning percentage that nearly matched the team's success (69-48, .590) over the rest of the year during the period when Ortiz was available.
How? The answer is pretty straightforward. The team did a better job of shutting down opponents' lineups with Ortiz on the shelf.
The defense was remade for a significant stretch of that time by the fact that Manny Ramirez could be shifted from left field to the DH spot, thus permitting the team to play both Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield at the same time (along with J.D. Drew, an exceptional defender, in right). That, coupled with strong pitching, permitted the team to limit opponents to just 3.78 runs per game while Ortiz was on the DL -- down 15.6 percent from a yield of 4.48 runs per game for the rest of the year. Run prevention gains almost entirely offset the loss of offense.
That backdrop is instructive given what the Sox appear likely to face early in 2013. Ortiz is going to be out to start the year, with any preliminary ETAs on his return getting nudged back repeatedly by the deliberate nature of his efforts to return to the field. As of Monday, he was still unable to take batting practice due to the inflammation in his right heel. At the same time, Stephen Drew remains sidelined due to the continuation of mild concussion symptoms, and he now appears unlikely to open the season on time.
And so the question looms: Can the Sox -- a team whose atrocious 4.70 ERA last year ranked 12th in the American League -- become a team that is primed for success in the absence of Ortiz thanks to run prevention? The scenario might not be as far-fetched as last year's performance suggests.
Certainly, members of the pitching staff believe they can shoulder the load at a time when injuries will impact the lineup.
"It's sort of hard to judge just going by spring training, but we definitely have the capability to do it," said Clay Buchholz, whose spring ERA increased to 0.68 on Monday when he allowed one run in five innings. "I think it's pretty safe to say we have a pretty good group of guys. We can't put the pressure on ourselves to go out and say we have to do something, rather than just going out, taking care of business, doing our job and letting everything else take care of itself, but I think everybody can say that we'd be pretty confident in the pitching staff if that was the thing that had to be our strong point in the first month. We have the capability to do it, for sure."
Spring training statistics can be wildly misleading. After all, the Sox' spring home of JetBlue Park is playing, in its second year, like Yellowstone. Still, it's hard not to notice that Sox starters this spring have an ERA of 2.20, easily the best mark (by almost a full run) in the majors.
Buchholz has given up nothing, Jon Lester (0.90 ERA, .092 batting average against) has looked sharp, Ryan Dempster (9 strikeouts, 2 walks in 12 2/3 innings, to go with a 2.13 ERA) has come as advertised, Felix Doubront (11 strikeouts, 4 walks in 8 2/3 innings with a 2.08 ERA) has shown the swing-and-miss stuff that made his 2012 season so intriguing and John Lackey -- despite an 8.10 ERA in 6 2/3 innings -- has been able to minimize solid contact in his return from Tommy John.
The net effect of what's been on display from Sox starters this spring, coupled with the presence of what could be a shut-down bullpen that ranks among the deeper relief corps in the game, is an impression among some outside of the Red Sox organization that the team may be able to withstand the absence of Ortiz for a while.
"I will be shocked if they don't pitch well this year, barring injury," said one rival talent evaluator who has seen plenty of the Sox this spring. "[Lester] looks great. He is ready to roll. He can be the No. 1 guy.
"I think Lester will be better [than in 2012], I think Lackey will be way better [than before Tommy John surgery], I think Dempster will be the same. Buchholz is the key. He's got to pitch like he can, but I don't think you need those guys to win 25 games either to be a successful team or get 90 wins. If they stay on the mound and with that bullpen, I think they're going to be tough. I think they'll be better than what people think.
"With Toronto, you hope [R.A.] Dickey and [Josh] Johnson are good but you've got questions on [Brandon] Morrow and [Ricky] Romero. The Yankees have question marks in the rotation. Tampa has a really good rotation, but I might put Boston second in the division right now."
Meanwhile, the wealth of arms in the bullpen -- with Joel Hanrahan at the back end, and Andrew Bailey, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller and two from the group of Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves and Clayton Mortensen available -- suggests an ability to shorten the game.
"If their starters can give them six innings or more, they're going to mix and match hitter-to-hitter almost and not burn anyone out," said the evaluator. "They've got a lot of weapons and guys to choose from. Some won't perform like they want, but if five of them do, they're going to be tough."
A favorable outlook on the Sox' ability to stifle opposing offenses could also result from the potential remaking of the defense without Ortiz and perhaps Drew. If the team ends up with Jose Iglesias as its everyday shortstop and features Jackie Bradley Jr. in the outfield next to Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino, the idea of a team built on pitching and defense isn't necessarily far-fetched -- not unlike the period when the Sox survived Ortiz's absence in 2008.
"If Victorino and Ellsbury are in the outfield, they should be -- on paper -- pretty solid," said the evaluator. "If Bradley is there, that's a superior outfield."
There was a time when it seemed virtually impossible to imagine a team contending in the AL East on the strength of pitching and defense and in spite of offensive deficiencies. The Rays, however, changed that view in 2008, when they became one of a number of teams in recent years to make a dramatic leap -- from last to first in the division -- that was built almost entirely on run prevention.
Subsequently, other teams have seen improvements in defense (as measured by defensive efficiency -- meaning the percentage of balls in play that turn into outs) and run prevention anchor surges into contention. Among them: the 2009 Rangers (who then went on to reach the World Series in 2010 and 2011), the 2012 Athletics and the 2012 Orioles.
None of that suggests that the Sox are better off without Ortiz and Drew than they would be with them. Still, based on what's been on display in spring training (again, a time of year that features ample limitations as a predictive tool), there's a path forward for the Sox this year that does not require them to raise a white flag in the absence of two anticipated lineup mainstays.
There are caveats. Rotation depth could be a concern, particularly given the relative inexperience of the group that will open the year in Triple-A Pawtucket (which will include Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Chris Hernandez, Steven Wright, with De La Rosa not stretched out to the point of being a rotation option at the start of the year). How the team translates its promising spring results to the regular season is uncertain, as is the transition of pitchers like Dempster and Hanrahan to the AL East.
Still, while the Sox will open the year depleted, if they are able to carry forward the promising pitching that they've shown in exhibition games, then they have a chance to remain in the thick of their formidable division while awaiting the arrival of the cavalry.
"I'm not going to be shocked if they get out of the gate, the pitching is pretty good, they don't blow any leads and all of a sudden they're 15-10 or 17-11 and they'll start feeling good about themselves," said the evaluator. "Then if they get Ortiz back, look out. Then they'll be tough because they're smelling it."