SAN FRANCISCO -- When Brian Sabean recently announced that he planned to exercise stealth instead of speed in pursuing free agents this offseason, the Giants general manager probably didn't have history in mind.

But it's worth noting that the Giants haven't shopped methodically in the open market since the 2001-02 offseason -- which preceded their last National League pennant.

Sabean typically has reached quickly into free agency's grab bag to fill the Giants' needs. San Francisco imported at least one significant free agent from outside the organization by Dec. 15 in the previous six offseasons.

By that date last year, the Giants had signed relievers Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry and shortstop Edgar Renteria. The year before that, the primary early addition was center Aaron Rowand. He followed outfielder Dave Roberts, infielder Rich Aurilia and catcher Bengie Molina (2006), right-hander Matt Morris (2005), shortstop Omar Vizquel, right-hander Armando Benitez and catcher Mike Matheny (2004) and second baseman Ray Durham and outfielder Marquis Grissom (2003).

But in the winter of 2001-02, the Giants didn't sign a newcomer until Jan. 5, when they secured outfielder Reggie Sanders. They added third baseman David Bell on Jan. 25. Both played key roles on the club that came excruciatingly close to winning the World Series, but was defeated in seven games by the Angels.

The Giants again should have the luxury of taking their time as open bidding for free agents starts Friday and they pursue their primary objective: Finding a qualified hitter or two who can play the infield or outfield corners. The financial crunch that has affected the entire industry is expected to decelerate the pace of negotiations. Though Matt Holliday and Jason Bay are the only true impact hitters available in free agency, the Giants should be able to wait for the right deal if they consider less-celebrated performers such as Mark DeRosa, Nick Johnson, Chone Figgins and Jermaine Dye.

"It's not a very attractive free-agent market, in my mind," Sabean said.

An 88-74 finish in 2009, representing a 16-game improvement, has enabled the Giants to resume entertaining postseason hopes. But they know they'll get shut out of October unless they improve their offense, which ranked 13th in scoring.

Economic constraints might prevent the Giants from being able to afford either Holliday or Jason Bay. Left-hander Barry Zito is owed $76 million over the next four years and Rowand is due $12 million in each of the next three seasons, consuming a substantial chunk of the payroll. Moreover, ace right-hander Tim Lincecum and closer Brian Wilson become eligible for salary arbitration for the first time and are thus destined for huge raises.

But Sabean hinted that if the Giants somehow fashion a creative offer for either Holliday or Bay, managing general partner Bill Neukom will at least listen to the proposal. "If we have something compelling baseball-wise to bring to him, he certainly will consider it and take it through the proper channels," Sabean said. "I think we'll have the latitude to see what we can recommend."

Expect the Giants' recommendations to come from the free-agent list. Sabean said earlier this week that a trade seemed unlikely, since he's reluctant to part with pitching assets that other teams covet.

The Giants have expressed interest in retaining at least three of their own free agents -- Molina, right-hander Brad Penny and infielder Juan Uribe -- but Sabean indicated that all of them will test the market.