BOSTON -- Open season on free agents began at midnight Saturday. The Red Sox lost the exclusive right to negotiate with their own free agents, but gained the right to start shopping in earnest for others.
Rebuilding the bullpen behind Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard is the one certain course Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein will embark upon this winter. Beyond that, there is only speculation, even the extremely likely scenario that the Sox will be deep in the bidding on free-agent outfielders Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth.
Last winter, Epstein caught virtually everyone off-guard when he veered from re-signing outfielder Jason Bay and instead signed pitcher John Lackey, breaking from precedent in giving the pitcher a five-year deal. He came in on third baseman Adrian Beltre only after it was clear Beltre wasn't going to get the kind of multiyear offer he was expecting.
That is just one reason for caution when trying to divine Epstein's intentions this winter. These things tend to be fluid.
Here's another. The Sox enter the winter with a great number of moving pieces, and the team's strategy may well play out like tumblers in a lock, with one prospective move directly impacting another.
The Red Sox so far have passed on signing catcher Victor Martinez to an extension, even though that was his stated preference. They always assumed that if third baseman Beltre had a good year, he would shop himself again on the open market. Captain Jason Varitek will be 39 next season, and with the acquisition of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, his great run with the Sox appears to be at an end. Utilityman Bill Hall played well enough that he's likely to land an everyday job somewhere else (the Sox declined his option).
So, who comes back? It's possible all four will have new addresses next season. Consider Epstein's comment on the conference call he held Thursday after picking up David Ortiz's $12.5 million option for 2011.
"I'll kind of answer the question the same way I answered it the day after our season ended,'' Epstein said, "which is we value these guys, we'd like to find a find a way to bring some or all of them back if we possibly could.
"But free agency is something that players work long and hard to get, it's a right they earn and often look forward to exploring. If the Red Sox are the best fit in the end, we'd love to bring these guys back. But they certainly have the right to explore all opportunities and I'm sure we'll be in great touch with all of these guys over the next couple of months.''
There's certainly no sense of urgency in those remarks. Not surprisingly, there was no last-minute pre-emptive strike to keep any of the four from testing the market. Once players get this close to free agency, teams seldom strike a deal.
If the Sox lose Beltre, Kevin Youkilis can move back to third base, which he says he's prepared to do, which then leaves the Sox shopping for a first baseman. Martinez could conceivably be part of the solution at first, and on the last day of the season expressed a willingness to play anywhere if it meant staying.
But then there is the Adrian Gonzalez factor. Padres GM Jed Hoyer has said he will listen to offers for the San Diego first baseman after Gonzalez told him this past week that he intends to become a free agent after next season. A trade for Gonzalez is probably more likely at the July trading deadline, but you can be sure the Sox will not easily abandon their pursuit of the left-handed-hitting slugger, who would be the perfect middle-of-the-order successor to Ortiz.
Martinez is far and away the best offensive option at catcher available on the free-agent market, though other clubs share at least some of Boston's reservations regarding Martinez's play behind the plate. His bat will create demand, though, especially for teams (Baltimore, for example) that could play him at multiple positions.
If the Sox lose Martinez, they could opt for a free-agent catcher like John Buck, who would put up similar power numbers, or explore the trade market, with Mike Napoli of the Angels a possible target.
There is no shortage of bullpen arms the Sox could pursue, including left-handers Scott Downs, Joe Beimel and Pedro Feliciano, and right-handers Joaquin Benoit, Kerry Wood and Jesse Crain. Teams are now free to sign any free agent they wish, but don't expect any signings of consequence until after Nov. 23; that's the date teams must decide whether to offer salary arbitration to their own free agents. If they don't, they lose any draft-pick compensation. Players offered arbitration will have a week to decide whether they will accept; if they accept, that is the equivalent of becoming a signed player. The Sox are certain to offer both Beltre and Martinez arbitration.
The other date of consequence is Dec. 2. That is the date by which teams have to tender contracts to rostered players. If not, they become free agents.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.