The holidays are behind us. The New England Patriots’ annual bye in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs has come and gone. Snow has started to accumulate throughout Maine. This means one thing:

It’s almost time for spring training.

Boston Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Florida, in just over five weeks. That will be the official start of Boston’s defense of a historic championship season.

The 2019 Red Sox will look very similar to the team that won it all in 2018. There could be one major exception: the back end of the bullpen. Joe Kelly is gone and Craig Kimbrel unsigned. It is important to note that the group of pitchers that starts spring training might not be the group that starts the season.

For the past few seasons, a large group of free agents has remained unsigned deep into the winter. That trend hit new heights last February when there were enough unclaimed veterans to hold their own unaffiliated spring training camp in Florida.

So don’t be surprised if Kimbrel, or relievers such as Adam Ottavino or Cody Allen, are unsigned as teams report to camp. There was a time when this would be highly unusual. Now it’s the way free-agent business is done.

Red Sox fans need look no further than last year’s Grapefruit League to remember that patience can be a virtue when it comes to building a roster. The Sox reported to the Gulf Coast still looking for an impact bat to solidify the lineup. The Yankees had traded for Giancarlo Stanton, and the pressure was on Dave Dombrowski to respond.

J.D. Martinez, coming off a 45-home run season, was the obvious solution, but he remained unsigned as workouts began in the Florida sun. Critics ripped the Boston front office for not making a move.

The Sox had already started their preseason games when the five-year deal with Martinez was announced on Feb. 26. Dombrowski and agent Scott Boras worked out a complicated deal that gave the team protection if the slugger redeveloped a worrisome injury while giving Martinez the chance to opt out after 2019 if he wanted to land a more lucrative deal.

The rest is history. Martinez hit 43 homers and drove in 130 runs for the champs, and won the Hank Aaron Award as the most outstanding offensive performer in the American League.

Not bad for a guy who was unsigned when spring training started.

It could go that way for Kimbrel. The seven-time All-Star ranked second in the American League saves last season, his third with the Sox, and will go down as one of the best closers in the history of the game. Yet there hasn’t appeared to be much of a market for him. Early reports had his agents looking for a deal worth more than $100 million. That’s unlikely to happen now.

What could happen is that Kimbrel agrees to a shorter deal, or one with opt-out clauses, after spring training begins. That could even be with the Red Sox, who still need a reliever to put the finishing touches on a team expected to contend once again next October.

Or it could be with another team, one that swoops in for a bargain at the last minute. Or a team that loses a key reliever to injury after the start of camp.

It’s a high-stakes game of poker being played between the free agent and 30 major league clubs. Last year, Martinez didn’t hit the jackpot but he landed a front-loaded contract that could have him reaping a bigger payday after this season.

Kimbrel may have to set his sights on a similarly constructed contract in the weeks ahead. Only time will tell if he can get it from the team that has won the AL East every season while he anchored the back end of the Boston bullpen.

Tom Caron is a studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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