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If Epstein leaves, price must be high

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 4, 2011

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If the Cubs ask for and receive permission to speak to Theo Epstein, it must come with major trade provisions.

The Red Sox need to ask for the moon in order to complete this transaction. We know that baseball is not like football, in which you can trade draft picks, but you’ll recall that the Jets received a No. 1 pick to allow Bill Belichick to go to the Patriots in 2000.

Why should this be different?

Why would the Red Sox just let Epstein go for a prospect or two like the White Sox recently did with the Marlins in the Ozzie Guillen deal?

If you want Epstein, the man you believe will turn your organization around, you have to be willing to pay a steep price, just like the Patriots did.

What can the Red Sox do?

■ In addition to Epstein, you trade, as some bloggers have suggested, John Lackey and the remainder of his contract to the Cubs. That would give the Cubs a Carlos Zambrano-Lackey tandem. Good luck, Theo.

■ Ask for shortstop Starlin Castro. Why not? Give them Jose Iglesias back if you must, but giving up Castro would hurt, and you have to make the Cubs hurt for wanting to take your GM.

■ Ask for pitcher Matt Garza. He’s the Cubs’ best righthander who is American League East battle-tested. Unreasonable? Why be reasonable?

Our sources say that Cubs owner Tom Ricketts believes that Epstein is the No. 1 target, the person who can turn the Cubs into what the Red Sox became after Epstein took over in 2003.

There are many possibilities going on with Epstein. Could Sox ownership be mulling a contract extension for him so he won’t even think about the Cubs? Are they trying to determine appropriate compensation if they let Epstein leave?

If he is leaving, where does that leave the managerial search?

Would it be proper to allow Epstein to begin the process if his status is up in the air, or would Larry Lucchino and/or Ben Cherington, who is Epstein’s likely successor, start the process independent of Epstein until he decides whether he’s staying or leaving?

There have been a lot of mixed signals coming from Yawkey Way. Sox chairman Tom Werner has been steadfast in his belief that Epstein isn’t going anywhere. Werner repeatedly has said in public that Epstein is under contract.

We haven’t heard much from John Henry.

Would the owner grant permission and let Epstein explore? Would he let Epstein go, feeling a lot of money has been spent without much of a return? Does he want to keep Epstein employed as the general manager?

And where does Lucchino stand in all of this? We know that he and Epstein have not been buddies for a long time. Lucchino would not shed a tear if Epstein leaves.

So it appears the front office/ownership is torn about whether to even allow Epstein to speak with the Cubs.

There’s also the scenario in which Epstein gets kicked into a presidency role, but what sense would that make? Epstein’s value is as a general manager, not a president. Lucchino is one of the best presidents in baseball and a worthy commissioner candidate when Bud Selig hangs it up.

So, why would the Red Sox ownership even consider such a move?

The other interesting aspect is that all the public comments Epstein has made since the season ended made him sound like a man who was staying to fix the mess. Those comments would sound quite disingenuous if he is interested in pursuing a job with the Cubs.

Would he want to bail on Boston, his boyhood team, at its lowest point since he took over? Or would he want to oversee the fixing?

If he did pursue the Cubs job, he always could spin it like Francona spun it: the Red Sox need a new voice. Or he could say the Sox need a new direction and that his way isn’t working anymore and that he’s leaving for the good of the organization.

There are many ways to spin.

What’s been bothersome is that Epstein never has indicated that he isn’t considering the Cubs job. When Werner was being rumored to be a potential buyer of the Dodgers, he said emphatically that he would not be interested in buying them now or in the future. And the story died.

Epstein never has made that comment concerning the Cubs. And who knows whether the Orioles or Angels are also in play, with vacancies at the general manager position.

As we mentioned, if Epstein leaves, look for Lucchino to recapture some of the power he had to oversee baseball operations. Cherington would be the likely choice, though Lucchino always could entertain an outsider if he indeed had the power to hire.

But if Epstein does depart, the price the Cubs must pay needs to be high.

While Epstein’s work has taken a hit in Boston, he’s considered one of the best baseball minds outside of Boston.

Just as Belichick was considered one of the best football minds when the Patriots handed over what it took to pry him loose from his contract with the Jets.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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