BOSTON -- As the Red Sox get ready to embark on another Hot Stove season, they do so amid circumstances completely foreign to the current regime.
For more than a decade, Boston would spend the winter trying to put the finishing touches on a team that was already considered a top contender.
Not this year. Not with the Red Sox coming off their first last-place finish since 1992 and lowest win total since 1965.
These Red Sox have openings to fill all over the roster. And thanks to a blockbuster trade back in August that sent the hefty salaries of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers, Boston also has some money available.
The wrinkle is this, however: This isn't a free-agent class stocked with elite players.
Look instead for general manager Ben Cherington to pick his spots and make some subtle tweaks to get his team back in contention for 2013 and beyond.
"It's greater, certainly," Cherington said of the team's financial flexibility. "Now, it's up to us to use it wisely. There's some options in the free-agent market. There's opportunities to build a team through free agency, you've just got to find the right ones.
"I think [team president/CEO] Larry [Lucchino] says this consistently and it's true -- your flexibility can go very quickly if you don't use it wisely and do the right things. We got to find the right opportunities. We'll do some things this offseason, but building a team doesn't stop on Feb. 15th. You keep going."
The Red Sox are already deep into negotiations with free-agent slugger David Ortiz, and could have him re-signed before he is eligible to sign elsewhere. Outfielder Cody Ross is another player Cherington will work hard to retain.
Players can start signing with other clubs after midnight ET on Friday.
Ortiz is a non-issue. He will be back, and most likely for two years. While the Red Sox were able to sign Ross for one year last winter, the outfielder will probably be able to command two or three years this time around.
Though the Red Sox do have an opening at first base, free agent James Loney was underwhelming in his brief stint with the team and Cherington will probably exhaust other options on the market. Aaron Cook and Daisuke Matsuzaka are all but certain to sign elsewhere.
Right-hander Vicente Padilla and outfielder Scott Podsednik are two players who did well for the 2012 team in complementary roles, and there's a chance they could be back.
The Red Sox have a big list of players eligible for arbitration, including Alfredo Aceves, Scott Atchison, Andrew Bailey, Daniel Bard, Craig Breslow, Jacoby Ellsbury, Rich Hill, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Sweeney. Boston has until Dec. 1 to tender contracts to those players, otherwise they can become free agents.
Areas of need
First base: Just when it seemed the Red Sox had this position filled for the better part of the next decade, Gonzalez was sent to the Dodgers. One name to keep an eye on is Mike Napoli, a player the Red Sox long have coveted. Napoli could rotate between first base and catcher. The Red Sox traded for Adam LaRoche in July 2009, only to trade him a week later. However, he could be a nice fit this winter.
Shortstop: Prospect Jose Iglesias could be an option here, but it's likely the Red Sox will at least bring some alternatives to camp. The free-agent market at this position is underwhelming, so a trade could be more likely.
Outfield: Even if Ross is re-signed -- which most people expect -- the Red Sox still need another starting outfielder. Delmon Young has put his name back on the radar by winning the Most Valuable Player Award of the American League Championship Series. However, his history of attitude issues could leave the Red Sox leery. Josh Hamilton is clearly the stud on the market, but it's doubtful the Red Sox will go all in to spend that type of money. B.J. Upton is a defensive star with some power, so he could draw some interest. However, that would be a more realistic option if the Sox traded center fielder Ellsbury. Nick Swisher is a switch-hitter with power, and can also play first.
Starting pitcher: As of now, the locks for the rotation seem to be Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Felix Doubront. The Red Sox badly underperformed as a starting staff last year, so they will almost assuredly seek an upgrade. Zack Greinke is the biggest name on the market, but doesn't seem like a good fit in Boston. Perhaps the hardest pitcher to gauge is lefty Francisco Liriano, who can be dominant but also injury prone. Brandon McCarthy sure looked comfortable in an Oakland Athletics uniform, but if he explores other options, the Red Sox could come calling. Jake Peavy will be a free agent once the White Sox decline his $22 million option and he certainly has the resume and makeup that makes him attractive to a lot of potential suitors.
The Red Sox opened last season with a payroll of close to $175 million. With so much money cleared off the books in the trade with the Dodgers, expect Boston to be well below that in 2013. This doesn't mean the Red Sox are going overboard to be frugal. It's just that they don't see a ton of high-priced value in this year's free-agent market, so they will pick their spots and perhaps save some high-priced acquisitions for next winter.
Cherington's buzzword for this offseason is discipline. He wants to make the right moves, not the glitzy ones.