In any other off-season, particularly one following a 69-win season, the Red Sox would have responded with their checkbooks.
The Red Sox had responded to downturns before by chasing after the biggest names available. When the team won 90 games in 2010 and missed the post-season for the first time since 2006, they reacted swiftly and, seemingly, without regard to payroll implications.
That winter, the Sox rocked baseball by trading for -- and later granting a contract extension to -- Adrian Gonzalez. Days later, they signed free agent outfielder Carl Crawford.
To be sure, there were impact players to be had this past winter, too. Outfielder Josh Hamilton was on the free agent market, and surely Zack Greinke, another free agent, would have upgraded the starting rotation.
But the Red Sox refrained from the quick fix this time. They signed seven free agents, but three -- first baseman Mike Napoli; shortstop Stephen Drew; and reliever Koji Uehara -- were signed to one-year deals and three others -- catcher David Ross; pitcher Ryan Dempster; and outfielder Jonny Gomes -- were signed to two-year deals.
Only outfielder Shane Victorino (three years) got more than a two-year commitment.
Perhaps the conservative approach shouldn't have caught anyone off-guard. After the season, the Red Sox publicly insisted that they would remain disciplined in their rebuilding.
Signing premium free agents often come at the cost of draft picks and the financial obligations can weigh down even the biggest of big-market teams.
And hadn't the Red Sox needed the cash-rich and desperate Los Angeles Dodgers last August to rid themselves of Crawford, Gonzalez and Josh Beckett and their anchor-like contracts?
Instead, the Sox took a more reasoned approach to their off-season acquisitions. The seven free agents combined cost them $96 million combined, or nearly $50 million less than they spent on Crawford alone two winters ago.
The hope is that, in the short-term, the free agents will help move the club back toward respectability. In the final two months of last year, after the trade with the Dodgers and the continued absence of DH David Ortiz, the Sox were unable to field a major league-caliber lineup most nights, a fact reflected in their 7-26 finish.
Napoli, Drew, Gomes and Victorino also share a willingness to work at-bats, something at which the Sox failed miserably last season, as evidenced by their paltry .315 OBP, 10th best in the American League.
But after years in which they made long-term commitments and tied up positions for years at a time, the Sox' approach this off-season leaves them with plenty of flexibility.
General manager Ben Cherington often said in the last six months that he envisions the farm system playing a major role in building the "next great Red Sox team.''
That thinking is a return to the philisophy that won the Sox their last world championship (2007) and sent them to the ninth inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
Unlike the 2004 roster, which was cobbled together with holdovers from the Duquette regime (Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek) and some cost-effective free agent signings (Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Mike Timlin), the 2007-2008 teams featured a homegrown nucleus. Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon all were scouted, signed and developed by the Sox themselves.
Ultimately, that dependence on homegrown players leads to continuity, consistency and cost-certainty.
But there are risks, too.
While the newest free agents steer the Sox back to respectability, the projected arrival of the system's two best position players -- shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. -- is for 2014. If they, along with highly-regarded pitching prospects Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, and Henry Owens -- fail to evolve into the players the Red Sox believe they'll be, the whole rebuilding program will be for naught and the Sox will have a host of expiring veteran contracts and no reinforcements in sight.
That's a chance the Sox will willingly take, even if, in the short-term, it's unlikely to end the team's three-year post-season drought. They found out the hard way the last few years that signing established (and far more expensive) players is no guarantee of success, either.