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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

This team never out of season

Theo again? A rift between John W. Henry and Larry Lucchino? Miguel Tejada straight up for Manny Ramírez?

So many questions. So few people talking.

The Red Sox might bring Theo Epstein back into the fold in some capacity soon, and it could be causing some problems upstairs. We all know that Henry loves Theo like a son and was devastated when Epstein resigned. Team CEO Lucchino took the fall and has since admitted making mistakes in the Epstein contract negotiations. With the possibility of Epstein returning in some capacity, Henry and Lucchino could be in the midst of their first major showdown.

The guy with the billion-dollar bank account always wins that one.

Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer are expected to be named co-general managers, possibly as early as this weekend. That wouldn't rule out Theo coming back as an adviser. But would Lucchino quit if Epstein is brought back against his wishes?

No one was saying much on the record yesterday.

In a series of e-mails with Henry, I put forth the theory that Epstein's status could drive a wedge between the owner and his CEO. Henry had no comment, other than to say, ''Theo is not a candidate at this time."

Note, Henry said at this time. Sounds like Bill Parcells telling us that he reserves the right to change his mind. Or Rick Pitino telling us that's how he felt at the time.

When asked the question about a rift at the top, Lucchino would only say, ''No comment. You're free to speculate as you see fit. Nice try."

I spoke with Epstein, who was home worrying that his dog might be lost in the snowstorm. He did not want to say anything about the situation. When it was offered that absence of a denial will certainly fuel speculation until the matter is resolved, Epstein again politely declined comment.

Team chairman Tom Werner did not return three phone messages. Very unusual. Something must be up.

So, we are left to speculate.

The idea of Epstein returning has been floating around since he resigned on Halloween. There was plenty of Theo buzz at the baseball meetings in Dallas this week. Some of Epstein's closest baseball peers are convinced that he's coming back to the Sox, and the maniacal Peter Gammons advanced the theory in a radio interview Thursday.

''We're not commenting on it," Lucchino said last night. ''We haven't commented on it in some time and we're not going to comment on it now."

Which keeps the story out there.

''That's what happens when you think 'no comment' is an appropriate response," said Lucchino. ''It allows people to speculate, I suppose. But so be it. I'm not going to comment on Theo Epstein's situation more than I already have and I'm not going to comment on other internal candidates."

Regarding the initial loss of Epstein, Lucchino admitted, ''Did I make some mistakes in the negotiation? I certainly did."

The closest the Sox have come to ruling out a return of Epstein came when Henry went online with the Sons of Sam Horn Nov. 22 and wrote, ''Theo was clear in his press conference when he opted not to close the door to the future. But life is constant change and for the most part it is exceedingly unpredictable. He is not going to return as our surprise GM in this process. We are proceeding carefully to make the right choice. There are more potential candidates than is known simply because a number of people prefer to avoid, if at all possible, a highly charged, circus atmosphere that ends with only one candidate being chosen."

Now it appears that the return of Theo is again a possibility and it's creating a combustible situation at the top. Remember Bob Kraft and Bobby Grier going behind Parcells's back before the infamous 1996 draft? Ultimately, that's why Parcells quit. Theo could be Lucchino's Terry Glenn. One thing we know is that Henry has the final say on this one and it would be a mistake for Lucchino to draw a line in the sand over Theo Epstein.

Meanwhile, back on the field, no one in the Sox' front office is allowed to talk about acquiring Tejada, but the Orioles have been presented a Manny-for-Miguel offer. Ramírez, of course, could shoot down any deal because of his status as a 10-5 player.

Amazing team, these Red Sox. We're busy digging out from yesterday's snow, the Patriots will probably clinch the division title tomorrow, and our winter sports teams are struggling below .500, but everywhere you go folks are talking about the local baseball team. Never out of season, the Sox have produced a staggering amount of news and speculation, and fans are scratching their heads trying to figure out who's coming and who's going.

And now we wonder if Theo's coming and Larry's going.

The hot stove has never been hotter.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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