Posted: Monday October 3, 2011 1:08PM ; Updated: Monday October 3, 2011 1:08PM
Jon Heyman

Red Sox don't want sympathy, but they may get a surprise manager

Story Highlights

Terry Francona parted ways with the Red Sox after eight years in Boston

In the words of one player, Francona "lost" the clubhouse this season

Surprise candidates are thought to be without MLB managing experience

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Theo Epstein
Theo Epstein must find a way to get the big-budget BoSox back to October next year for the first time since 2009.
Winslow Townson/SI

The Red Sox parted ways with popular manager Terry Francona, enraged team owner John Henry somehow seriously injured himself slipping on his yacht -- and the offseason action is just getting started. The stunning September collapse of one of baseball's three supposed superpowers won't soon be forgotten. But Red Sox people and their Nation are trying hard to recall that they appeared en route to 100 wins at the start of September before their brutal month undid all that was right.

"Everyone's acting like we're the Mets,'' one Red Sox person said. The implication was obvious: Even if others doubt them, they still think they're a good team with at least one major change needed.

Meanwhile, the only team to win two titles over the past decade is even receiving pity from the most unlikely of quarters. "To see what's happening, well, it's a little bit sad,'' said Yankees catcher Russell Martin, who just a few weeks ago admitted that he hated the Red Sox. "They just ran into adversity. They seemed a little bit tired, beaten down.'' Frankly, it appears to be heading toward the pathetic stage for the BoSox if Martin, the one Yankee willing to publicly admit that he hated the Red Sox, is feeling sorry for them.

But Red Sox people don't believe for a second that they need a hug, and their thought is that a change in leadership will do the trick. While Francona was terrific for seven years with his laissez-faire, players-manager style, word around the team is that he wasn't proactive enough this year. Francona is said to have retreated to the clubhouse on many occasions, he failed to re-establish the rapport that he always had with his players and, in the words of one Red Sox player, flat out "lost'' the clubhouse. At the press conference to make formal his departure, Francona himself expressed frustration that his message wasn't being heard, annoying team higher-ups with a not-so-subtle suggestion that the players were to blame.

The reality, according to that Red Sox player, is that Francona had withdrawn from the team and often inexplicably kept to his office this season. Revealingly, the one active player who has come out so far to support Francona was Dustin Pedroia, no great surprise to the aforementioned Red Sox player, who said that Francona maintained his rapport with the fiery second baseman while withdrawing from most others.

One complaint about the team by club executives is that it became unlikable, though they see their mix as fixable. Followers of the team say that there was a cliquish element at play, with starting pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and the dour, demonstrative John Lackey ("they need to trade him,'' one competing executive said) forming a scowling triumvirate that sometimes seemed to include respected veteran leader Jason Varitek but few others. The Boston Herald reported that there were sometimes even pitchers drinking beer in the clubhouse on days they didn't pitch. It's a shame because there are terrific individuals in that room; besides Pedroia, notably there is David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Varitek among the vets.

The real problem, it was decided, was Francona. High-level discussions about his reputed withdrawal were conducted throughout the season's final weeks, but according to people briefed about the meeting two days after the season, at the final confab he was told that to even consider bringing him back he would need to "set higher standards'' and "reinvent himself.''

Francona could sense that he was almost assuredly about to be let go, even if higher-ups were willing to give it a day or two to ruminate, so he announced to them, "I think it's time to move on.'' In other words, he quit before he was about to be canned. He was correct. There was no shot that the Red Sox were picking up his $4.5 million-a-year option.

Confidants suggest that revered GM Theo Epstein, who is believed to maintain the support of Henry and chairman Tom Werner, has a couple surprise managerial candidates in mind. One of them isn't Bobby Valentine. While Valentine is an extraordinary baseball mind, the Red Sox, who incorporate Moneyball principles, already have their plan and aren't about to hire someone who'll bring his own blueprints. It also won't be Joe Torre. Valentine may consider managing again, but has told friends that he is thrilled with his TV gig, and Torre has expressed no great desire to leave his big job in the MLB office, where he makes $2 million annually without half the headaches.

Actually, it is thought that Epstein's two unknown surprise candidates are without major-league managing experience. That would seem to be a risk considering the degree of difficulty of the assignment, but it's hard to question Epstein's hiring record.

Epstein conducted a superb search eight years ago, culminating with the hiring of Francona, who served them well, winning two World Series titles over seven years, beating out second-choice Joe Maddon, who's fast becoming the hottest managing item in the game for the rival Rays. Tampa Bay's startling success -- making the playoffs three of the past four years -- is said to have enraged Henry, a "nutty professor'' type said to have a nasty streak. One hot candidate from Maddon's staff is Dave Martinez, who is also a candidate for the White Sox, at least. Pete Mackanin, the well-regarded former Reds manager who's currently the Phillies bench coach, and Bo Porter, the well-liked Nationals third base coach, also are potential managerial candidates this winter.

As for Epstein himself, he maintains full control of the baseball operations department, though some outsiders have wondered whether club president Larry Lucchino may try to inject himself a bit into the process in this hour of unrest. But the respected Epstein could become a candidate for either the Angels or especially the Cubs, who are expected to target Epstein and Rays GM Andrew Friedman, another of many reasons why any diminishing of power in Boston is unlikely. Those who know Epstein say he doesn't expect to be a Red Sox lifer, and he has hired a very competent staff (Ben Cherrington, Craig Shipley and Allard Baird are three of many great baseball people on a well-rounded crew) should he leave, but others don't necessarily see Epstein departing at crisis time, either.

A more likely scenario has Henry adding a couple years to Epstein's contract, since he has only a year remaining, and perhaps even giving him an upgraded job title (Peter Gammons, @pgammo, suggested co-CEO on Twitter). The incoming manager would likely get a three-year deal, But the first order of business will be finding the man who can pull together a team with vast potential.
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