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Epstein still the Red Sox GM, but rumors about the Cubs are swirling


The big news out of Chicago this weekend was that Theo Epstein might have been spotted at a Lincoln Park Starbucks. Not kidding. That came via a Cubs fan who said he was "99.9 percent'' sure it was the celebrated, elusive longtime Red Sox general manager, and it shows how secretive the Cubs' GM search is being kept by relatively new owner Tom Ricketts. If Ricketts is as good at building a successful team as he is at keeping a secret, maybe the Cubs will break out of their century of general futility.

Red Sox owner John Henry, meanwhile, took to the airwaves, saying on Boston radio he didn't expect Epstein to be the Red Sox GM "forever.'' But of course, that leaves a lot of wiggle room. Most baseball insiders interviewed by SI don't discount Epstein moving to the North Side -- despite the Cubs' long lack of success, the GM job remains a coveted position -- but they believe it's more likely than not he'll remain in Boston, at least for now.

While it's not known if Boston has even granted anyone permission to talk to Epstein, baseball execs say if the Cubs do interview him, it'll be to offer him the job. But even most people with the Cubs are mostly in the dark. When GM Jim Hendry was fired, Ricketts addressed the matter of a successor by telling employees in a conference call, "You'll find out when everyone else finds out.''

Would Epstein accept? Who can know for sure? Some suggest another huge challenge would appeal to him, but most think he'll stay in Beantown, where he's guided the Red Sox to a pair of World Series titles in the last seven years. They say his relationship with Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, sometimes a combatant in the past, is fine for the moment. They also wonder whether Epstein wants to look like he's abandoning ship after the club's stunning and historic collapse this season.

There's another practical reason why he might not be anxious to move to Chicago. "The Cubs aren't going to win for five more years,'' contended one competing executive.

The beloved North Side team has a nice middle-infield combo of Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney to build around, but it gets dicey beyond that. After solid starter Matt Garza, the rotation is especially suspect. "I think it's time to break up the nucleus,'' the Cubs person said. Depending on who ends up as GM, Alfonso Soriano seems likely to hit the trade block, possibly to an American League team where he could be a fulltime DH. Not one person sees Carlos Zambrano coming back now. And even Aramis Ramirez understands he's not likely to be re-signed.

Manager Mike Quade seems to be waiting to see who gets the honor of reassigning or firing him. While it might not be fair, nobody sees a scenario in which the new GM won't want his own manager, especially when it appears he'll inherit Hendry's front office.

The next question could be how Ricketts will proceed if Epstein stays in Boston. Proven GMs Andrew Friedman, Billy Beane and Brian Cashman have all been rumored as possibilities; Friedman might be the most likely of those given Tampa Bay's financial constraints. But even he is seen as a long shot; he has a very close relationship with owner Stu Sternberg and they've built something pretty special in Tampa on a shoestring. Some respected up-and-comers who also might be considered: Boston's Ben Cherrington, the White Sox's Rick Hahn, San Diego's Josh Byrnes and Atlanta's John Coppolella. Given Ricketts' fondness for the "Red Sox model," Cherrington -- Epstein's right-hand man -- might have a slight edge, especially since he'd presumably have his boss' recommendation.

Regardless, this has all become quite the guessing game thanks to Ricketts' secrecy. But there's one thing we can be sure of. If Epstein does decide to take over the Cubs, Terry Francona won't be their manager. While Henry is seen as the lead force in the ousting of Francona in Boston, Francona wouldn't be gone from Boston if Epstein strongly disagreed. He still has power there, which is why most folks think he'll ultimately decide to stay.

The fractured ankle that knocked Magglio Ordonez out of the postseason is a killer for the Tigers. Manager Jim Leyland, a star of this postseason with his down-home speech, easy manner and baseball brilliance, expressed faith in his guys, saying, "I see this as an opportunity to show how tough we are. And we're tough. We'll get through it. We're not going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves, I can tell you that.''

Maybe not, but the loss of the hot-hitting Ordonez is a major blow. The Rangers sport a lefty-heavy pitching rotation, and with righty-swinging Delmon Young already out with an oblique injury, Ordonez's absence makes Detroit's lineup even more dependent on Miguel Cabrera and his lineup protection, Victor Martinez. Rangers manager Ron Washington suggested they will continue to "keep their eye'' on Cabrera, who's said he must be more patient in Texas and Detroit, whose ballparks lack the short Yankee Stadium's right-field porch that tempted him in the ALDS.

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Without Ordonez, the Tigers will presumably start lefty-hitting part-timer Don Kelly, who'll join Ryan Raburn, Young's replacement, in an outfield that's anchored by the strikeout-prone center fielder Austin Jackson. No other immediate help is on the horizon, and one baseball person joked, "Well, Al Kaline and Willie Horton are on the trip.'' They could technically try bringing back Young, but it would be hard to see an oblique injury healing in days. Brennan Boesch, another outfielder, is also out.

Ordonez won't decide on retirement until after he sees a doctor, but that seems like a realistic possibility after suffering a second break of the same ankle. If so, it's a depressing ending to a terrific career.

• The Yankees are viewed as an early favorite to land C.J. Wilson. Cashman and right-hand man Billy Eppler are big fans of the Rangers lefty, according to one person familiar with their thinking. Another source said there's talk Wilson, a Southern Californian who grew up in the Texas organization, may have a real interest in New York. Wilson is expected to receive something in the neighborhood of the $82.5 million, five-year deals bestowed on John Lackey and A.J. Burnett, though that could be pushed up a bit thanks to a low supply and high demand. The Red Sox, Nationals and Marlins are among other teams expected to show interest in Wilson. The incumbent Rangers will, too, though he now seems more likely than not to leave.

• Cashman is expected to re-sign with the Yankees, as both sides want to keep the relationship going.

• Orioles president Andy MacPhail's departure as GM has been a quiet one. Buck Showalter seems likely to remain in the dugout as manager, meaning they'd have to find someone else to take that impossible job.

• The Phillies suffered a double blow when Ryan Howard went down with a torn Achilles heel while making the last out of the NLDS. The Phillies said there's "no guarantee'' Howard will be ready for spring, but a good part of his regular-season could also be jeopardy. Achilles injuries can take six to 12 months to heal.

• The Phillies like Jimmy Rollins and have no obvious shortstop replacement. The only thing Philly higher-ups don't love about the free agent is that he's on his own program to a degree (although obviously he's been quite successful with it). But look for them to try to re-sign him to a three-year contract.

• Alexi Ogando is becoming a star back in the Rangers bullpen. He did well as a starter this year, though scouts aren't completely convinced his future is in the rotation. He's been throwing 97 mph.

• Closer Neftali Feliz hit 101mph in the Rangers' 3-2 Game 1 victory over the Tigers. The Rangers are expected to try to convert him to a starter next year, and their need for one might be greater if Wilson leaves.

• Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan said he was "truly surprised'' that his beatdown of Robin Ventura still gets so much attention more than two decades later. Ryan also said he's happy Ventura was hired to manage the White Sox. "I think he's the type of person that you want to see in that position, because I think he's good for baseball, and he knows the game,'' Ryan said.

• No surprise that Leyland kept the Tigers in rotation, with ace Justin Verlander still slated to pitch Game 5 following a so-so performance in the rain-ravaged Game 1. Verlander threw 200 pitches more than anyone else in the regular season, and his 82 pitches in Game 1 before the rains came means he has thrown the most in the postseason, too. The Tigers have suffered some bad breaks with the weather. But remember, Leyland is not feeling sorry for himself.

• Manager Joe Maddon looks like a candidate for an extension in Tampa. He has one year to go (believed to be for about $1.4 million).