Red Sox ownership is working to bring back former general manager Theo Epstein in a consulting/advisory position, according to team sources.
Epstein would advise Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington, the members of the Sox' baseball operations team who are expected to serve as co-general managers for the 2006 season, barring a last-minute reversal by ownership. It is not known whether Epstein, who on Oct. 31 declined a three-year, $4.5 million contract offer to remain as GM, has been formally approached yet by the team's principal owner, John W. Henry, or team chairman Tom Werner, but Henry and Werner have made their intentions known internally, the sources said.
Since Epstein's departure, Larry Lucchino, the team's president and chief executive officer, has conducted the search for a new GM and had appeared to focus on Jim Beattie, the former Orioles executive vice president, as his leading candidate. Beattie had at least three interviews for the position, but said yesterday he had not spoken with the Sox in a week.
The impending appointment of Hoyer, 32, and Cherington, 31, who spoke at length yesterday with Henry and Werner, could indicate a split among the Sox owners, with Lucchino possibly preferring to go in another direction. In addition to Beattie, Lucchino is known to have spoken with two senior advisers, Jeremy Kapstein and Bill Lajoie, about taking the GM job on an interim basis. Kapstein said he wanted the job; Lajoie, who is 71 and in recent years has undergone treatment for leukemia, seemed less interested, though he served as de facto GM during the recently concluded baseball winter meetings in Dallas.
In response to an e-mail last night, Lucchino said, ''No comment on our consideration of internal candidates. That has been and remains our policy." Werner also said in an e-mail that he had no comment. The other principals did not respond last night to e-mails seeking comment. Henry, when reached by colleague Dan Shaughnessy yesterday via e-mail, said Epstein was ''not a candidate at this time."
Looming as the biggest question connected to Epstein's possible return is whether Lucchino and Epstein can be expected to resolve apparent differences that surfaced in Epstein's contract negotiations. Those talks fell apart in the last hours before Epstein's original contract expired, after the sides had come to an agreement, according to multiple sources, on the financial terms of Epstein's contract extension.
On Oct. 30, the day before Epstein departed, a major league executive said he spoke with Epstein. ''Theo said all that was left to do was work out some of the contract language," the source said. ''I thought the deal was done."
Rumors have persisted for weeks that Epstein was coming back, even after last month's declaration by Lucchino and Werner at the general managers' meetings in Palm Springs, Calif., that the team intended to head in a new direction.
''I have read all the rumors," Werner said at the time, ''but as far as we're concerned, we're turning the page and we're looking for the next general manager of the Red Sox."
Lucchino, who was meeting with reporters for the first time since Epstein's stunning departure, also made it clear the team was moving on, saying he had not asked Epstein to reconsider his decision to leave.
''I believe his place in the history of the club is positive and secure, but his departure does not terminate the history of the club," Lucchino said at the time.
But even while Henry has admitted he was uncertain whether Epstein really wanted to stay with the Sox, he expressed enormous regret at Epstein's departure. He also faulted himself for his handling of the situation, absolving to some degree Lucchino, who had become the target of criticism in the aftermath of Epstein's leaving.
Both Lucchino and Epstein have consistently refused to discuss the reasons why they were unable to reach an agreement, even as speculation centered on chain-of-command issues, Epstein chafing at having to run all of his decisions past Lucchino, and trust issues between two men who have worked together for 14 years, since Lucchino was CEO of the Baltimore Orioles and Epstein was a public relations intern. Lucchino played a significant role in Epstein's baseball apprenticeship, recognizing his great potential, and taking Epstein with him to San Diego, where Epstein obtained his law degree and was schooled in baseball operations working under Padres GM Kevin Towers.
Epstein followed Lucchino again to Boston when Lucchino became part of the new Sox ownership group, joining the club as an assistant general manager, and was Lucchino's bold choice to become GM of the Red Sox at age 28, making him at the time the youngest GM in baseball history. Epstein rewarded that faith by guiding the Sox to a World Series title in 2004, their first in 86 years. The baseball executive who had been certain that Lucchino and Epstein had reached terms on a deal back in October said yesterday he expects Epstein to return. ''I think he has been steering everybody away from it [a possible return] to keep the door open to slide back in.
''From everything I hear, I know how highly John Henry feels about Theo. If Theo comes back, he keeps all those assistants there, and hopefully he and Larry can work out their differences."
Hoyer and Cherington are both New Hampshire natives. Hoyer served as assistant to the general manager under Epstein, and was the one who accompanied Epstein to Arizona for his now-famous Thanksgiving Day negotiations with Curt Schilling. Cherington, who was originally hired by Dan Duquette as an area scout in 1998, has spent the last two years as director of player development and has overseen the growth of a minor league system that has made dramatic strides in recent years.