Can Red Sox afford not to spend?

Before the opening game of the final series between the Red Sox and Yankees, Theo Epstein and I sat in the visitors dugout at Yankee Stadium, and a position of mine caught his attention.

I told him I felt a major reason for the Red Sox's success during his time as general manager stemmed from his and the John Henry ownership group's refusal to concede the accepted market advantages -- available free agents, international players, trade possibilities or adding payroll -- to the Yankees, while his predecessors seemed content to spend and fight with the Yankees for a few years before eventually downsizing in payroll and, consequently, in talent.

"I find it interesting that you see it that way," Epstein countered. "I think the biggest reason for our success is that we stopped thinking about the Yankees, reacting to what the Yankees were doing. There was a period where we seemed to be going after the same free agents, after the same players in trade, but I think we've done a very good job adhering to our plan, to what we think we do best, what is best for our organization in terms of scouting and development, as well as what we do in the free-agent market, regardless of what they're doing."

For a variety of suddenly coalescing factors, this offseason may challenge Epstein's position. The Yankees won the World Series, which would not necessarily be cause for alarm except for how they won it. That the Red Sox did not return to the American League Championship Series for a third straight year is not reason for panic except for how they didn't.

The winter meetings in Indianapolis are less than a month away and the Red Sox will be an interesting team to watch. Epstein said the Red Sox thought they would likely shrink payroll noticeably by 2011 -- furthering the money gap between them and the Yankees -- while in a bad economy Red Sox officials expected their sellout streak of 550 games dating back to May 15, 2003, to end either in 2008 or 2009. It didn't, but management knows even a passion purchase such as Red Sox tickets probably will be cut out of more fans' budgets.

But now that the Red Sox have established a standard -- at $123 million, they were fourth in the league in payroll, but that number is deceptively low because the $52 million posting fee the club spent in 2007 to acquire Daisuke Matsuzaka did not count against payroll -- can they afford to not be major players in the market, at a time when the Yankees seemed to overpower them and the rest of the league?

Since 1934, the first year Tom Yawkey owned the team, the Red Sox would adopt a familiar pattern: Take on the Yankees for a few years and back off. Part of the reason for the retrenching, especially in the free-agent era, is that for all their wealth, the Red Sox have traditionally been allies with the rest of the American League, refusing -- unlike George Steinbrenner -- to be the club that escalated the league's salary structure.

In the 1930s, the club added Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx and Joe Cronin over a three-year period in addition to the rookie Ted Williams. In the 1970s, the Red Sox's powerhouse farm system surrounded Carl Yastrzemski with future Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk and Jim Rice. It also produced Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans and Bill Lee, while management added Dennis Eckersley and Mike Torrez before scaling back financially in the early 1980s.

Around the turn of the millennium, under Dan Duquette, the Red Sox acquired big stars -- Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon -- to go with big homegrown talent Nomar Garciaparra, but lacked the roster depth to match their star power.

The Henry group has been different, becoming the first Red Sox ownership team to consistently challenge the Yankees each year without going into payroll-slashing/rebuilding mode. With Martinez in tow, they acquired Curt Schilling. With Schilling, they snared Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. They paid big money for J.D. Drew, who won a World Series title his first year in Boston.

The Red Sox were active in the international market, failing to land Jose Contreras in another duel with the Yankees, but scoring big in the title year of 2007 with Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima, while the Yankees tried to counter with the infamous Kei Igawa. They went to the 12th round with the Yankees to try to net Alex Rodriguez.

The 2009 season was the first in which the balance of power in the AL East decidedly shifted. Since 2003, neither team has held a decided advantage over the other, and in 2008, for the first time since 1997, neither team won the division. Even the acquisition of CC Sabathia only evened the scales; until Sabathia arrived, the Yankees had not been able to count on a big-game ace as the Red Sox could with Beckett.

The real shift occurred with the acquisition of Mark Teixeira, and on the field the gap seemed to grow as the season continued. Maybe the Red Sox were not concerned about having lost nine of their final 10 games to the Yankees because it suggested an aberration similar to the Red Sox beating the Yankees eight straight times to begin the season; the universe balanced out, you could argue.

But there is a difference: While the Yankees were 0-8 against the Red Sox over their first 60 games, they never lost sight of the Red Sox. After Boston beat New York 4-3 on June 11, the Yankees had lost their eighth straight to the Red Sox … but were only two games out of first place.

Meanwhile, when the Yankees began to soar, they were much better than the Red Sox for the rest of the year, going up in the division by 10½ games Sept. 30.

The big question for the Red Sox is whether they'll sign Matt Holliday or re-sign Jason Bay, but the market is already moving. Bobby Abreu's two-year, $19 million deal with the Angels suggests that either of those players will cost upward of $15 million to $18 million per season for multiple years. Despite the odd public dance between Bay and the Red Sox during the season, in which each side sounded genuinely optimistic about a deal that never got done, Bay seemed completely content with filing for free agency, which he did the first day he could. Even if he returned to Boston, the price figured to be higher in the offseason.

The problem with the Red Sox offensively is their triangle issue: first base affects third base which affects the designated hitter. And two points of the triangle -- David Ortiz and Mike Lowell -- require equal but separate leaps of faith: Ortiz that he is not the hitter he was much of last year, and Lowell that his debilitating hip will not debilitate him in 2010. The third point of the triangle, Kevin Youkilis, is an accomplished hitter but less dangerous if asked to carry a club on his own.

After the Red Sox lost to the Angels in the division series, Epstein said in his season-ending press conference that health would not be a factor for Lowell. With the retention of Jason Varitek and Victor Martinez taking over as the full-time catcher, the triangle concerns may have turned into a square: Martinez will be asked to maintain his high offensive standard as a catcher, as the first base and designated hitter spots are clogged. Varitek is finished as a high-level offensive player.

Still, the Red Sox were criticized for having a club that did not seem to score enough, but they actually scored their most runs -- 872 -- since 2005, even with Lowell limited and a marked down year from Ortiz.

In the long run, the Red Sox's position may actually be strengthened by not spending extravagantly over this season. The core group of the Yankees enjoyed a renaissance year that ended in a championship, but it is no younger than the core of the Red Sox. Only Mariano Rivera seems able to play forever.

The real question in Boston will be similar to the one Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has struggled with for virtually his entire tenure in New York: Will Boston fans, after years of big payrolls and big stars, be willing to reload with younger and less expensive players? Or have the Red Sox reached that critical point -- the ultimate price of winning two championships in four years -- at which rebuilding becomes unacceptable?

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and the forthcoming "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter.