Those three managerial posts were each vacated in the last month in the wake of landmark events for each team. In Boston, the Red Sox suffered one of the biggest collapses in major league history, then declined to pick up Francona's option for the 2012 season. By doing so they severed ties with the second-longest tenured manager in club history and the man who led the Red Sox to their first world championship in 86 years, in 2004, then another in 2007.
In St. Louis, the Cardinals won their National League-best 11th world championship last month then watched as Tony La Russa, the man who led them to the last two, retired after 33 consecutive seasons as a major league manager. He was the longest-tenured manager in St. Louis history and had managed more major league games than anyone other than Connie Mack.
In Chicago, former Boston general manager Theo Epstein, who reacted to the Red Sox collapse by leaving to become the Cubs new president of baseball operations, fired incumbent Cubs skipper Mike Quade.
So, Red Sox, Cardinals, Cubs: If you were offered a job by all three, which one would you take? Let's assume all three come with an identical three-year contract, and that you can set aside off-field concerns, such as relocating your family or your feelings about New England versus the Midwest. Which team would reward you with the best roster, the best chance to win over the next three years and put you in the best position for your next contract or managerial job after the 2014 season?
The Cubs immediately sink to third place. After all, the Cardinals and Red Sox, despite their very different postseason fortunes, both won 90 games this year and are perennial contenders, having made the postseason more often than not since the turn of the millennium. The Cubs, meanwhile, have been heading in the wrong direction ever since leading the majors in wins in 2008, having won 83, 75, and 71 games in the three seasons since.
Of course, the hiring of Epstein and of Epstein's hand-picked general manager Jed Hoyer, formerly GM of the Padres, have things looking up on the North Side. There's also the considerable lure of having a chance be the first manager to take the Cubs to the World Series since 1945 or the first to helm a world champion Cubs team in more than a century. But the chances of achieving either of those feats in the next three seasons are extremely slim, even with Epstein and Hoyer in charge.
As I discussed in my NL Central Hot Stove preview on Wednesday, it could take Epstein the full length of his new five-year deal to turn the Cubs into a contender, and anyone signing a three-year deal to be Epstein's manager this winter couldn't expect more than one winning season.
Then again, as one particularly insightful scene in Moneyball recognized, the manager will get an unfair share of credit for improvements made to the team by the front office, and the Cubs have both a lot of room for improvement and a front office that seems guaranteed to make the team better. Compare that to St. Louis, where the only direction to go is down, and Boston, where the fanbase that not long ago wanted to see the Sox win a title "just once" in their lifetimes, now expects a World Series appearance annually and can get vicious when the team falls short.
Still, choosing the Cubs is a gamble.
One of the advantages with Boston is that it has the financial wherewithal to eat its own mistakes. The problem is that those mistakes have been piling up lately.
After posting a 5.26 ERA in his first two years with the Red Sox, John Lackey will earn $15.5 million next year to rehab from Tommy John surgery, leaving just two years for him to make good on his $82.5 million contract. Carl Crawford has far more time to prove that he's better than his .255/.289/.405 performance this season, but while he should rebound, his seven-year, $142 million contract is going to be a disaster for the Red Sox, who let the market convince them that Crawford was a better player than he actually is. Nor is there much reason to be terribly optimistic about Josh Beckett's ability to stay healthy and earn the $47.25 million he has left on his contract.
Then again, the guy who handed out those contracts is now in charge of the Cubs, so maybe things will change in Boston. Even so, this team still has to play in baseball's toughest division, which annually fields three playoff-worthy teams, and a fourth, the Blue Jays, that is getting better fast. In these post-Curse days, any Red Sox manager who successfully navigates his loaded division and skippers his team deep into October is only doing what's expected of him. One who falls short is a failure. There's little reward left in the job and there's blood in the water after what happened this season.
Which brings us to St. Louis. It's easy to favor the team that just won it all, so let's not pretend there aren't some cons to the Cardinals job as well. The biggest, of course, is the uncertainty about Albert Pujols re-signing and the potential power struggle if he does.
On one side is a three-time MVP with two St. Louis World Series rings, arguably one of the greatest hitters to ever live, an institution in St. Louis for the last 11 years, and a player whom even a micro-managing future Hall of Famer like La Russa let call his own hit-and-runs from the batter's box during the World Series.
On the other side is the manager. If you're Mike Maddux, you've never managed a major league game. If you're Pete Mackanin or Dale Sveum, you've never managed a team for more than 80 games in a season. If you're Francona, you essentially just got fired for losing control of your clubhouse, and if you're Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who the Cubs reportedly won't consider but who is on the Cardinals' list, you're the enemy. Cal Ripken got to a point in his career when he effectively superseded his manager, calling plays from the batter's box and pitches from shortstop, and it fractured the Orioles clubhouse.
Job one for the next Cardinals manager is either finding a way to win without Pujols or finding away to assert your authority over him without driving a wedge between yourself and the best player in the game, who, it has been rumored, would have preferred that third base coach Jose Oquendo had your job (oh, and you'd better keep Oquendo).
There's a chance that giving Pujols the contract required to keep him, combined with the $85 million left on Matt Holliday's contract, could limit the Cardinals' ability to spend. The Cardinals have money (as evidenced by their $109 million payroll this season), but they don't have the kind of money Boston or Chicago does, and Holliday's injury-plagued 2011 season, though fluky (appendicitis? a moth flew into his ear?!), was worrisome.
The Cardinals can't eat their mistakes the way the Red Sox can. They still could use upgrades in the middle infield. David Freese had a great October, but he'll be 29 in April and has just 15 regular season home runs to his name, in part because he can't stay healthy. Allen Craig also shined in October, but he'll be 28 next July and will still be a bench player if Pujols returns.
On the plus side, the Cardinals job likely comes with Dave Duncan, the legendary pitching coach, who has said he'd like to return despite his wife's recent battle with cancer and the retirement of his long-time partner La Russa. That could be a bad thing if you want to pick your own coaches and run your own pitching staff, but you won't find a better coach than Duncan. The St. Louis job also comes with the return of Adam Wainwright, the 2010 NL Cy Young runner-up who missed the Cardinals' championship season following Tommy John surgery but was throwing off a mound in October.
Keeping Pujols and effectively adding Wainwright to a team that just won the World Series could make any manager look smart, even if there's nowhere to go but down from the Cardinals' 2011 season. The Brewers and Reds, winners of the NL Central the last two years, aren't pushovers, despite the latter's mediocre performance this year and the likely departure of Prince Fielder from the former. But this division is far more winnable division than the AL East.
Also, the Cardinals have a solid farm system that could provide the major league team with another front-line starter as early as the second half of the coming season in righthander Shelby Miller, who is a better prospect than anyone in the Red Sox' system.
Finally, the hot seat takes a lot longer to warm up in St. Louis, where just four men have managed 42½ of the last 47 seasons. If I'm a longtime coach looking for my big chance to manage, I'd rather take it in St. Louis than Boston, and if I'm a veteran manager looking for my next gig, I'd rather not take part in the big build in Chicago. It's no wonder Tony La Russa stayed in St. Louis for 16 years (during which he made nine playoff appearances, winning three pennants and two World Series). For a big league manager, there may not be a better job to have.