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Time to play ball?

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 18, 2011

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CHICAGO - Is today the day?

If it isn’t, then the Cubs and Red Sox will have to wait until after the World Series to publicly announce Theo Epstein’s move to Chicago. Major League Baseball prohibits any major announcements during the World Series.

As of late yesterday afternoon, talks between the Sox and Cubs were ongoing, but nothing that could be characterized as close to finalizing the deal, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.

That could and likely will change, as most deals get done once they reach the imposed deadline.

ESPNChicago reported that the Sox shot high, asking for righthanded starter Matt Garza as compensation for their general manager.

The Cubs shot low, hoping to get Epstein for cash.

It’s no surprise that the Sox asked for Garza, a pitcher they’ve coveted since his days in Tampa Bay. Garza is American League East battle-tested and would have been a prominent piece to Boston’s troubled rotation.

According to one major league source, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Sox also tried for young shortstop Starlin Castro.

In the meantime, the sides slowly have moved their position to a more realistic center, now trying to figure out which of the Cubs’ top prospects should be set free.

The Sox would love to get a pitcher to replenish their depleted talent at the Double-A/Triple-A level.

The Sox have had to give pitchers away in recent years to make deals for Victor Martinez and Adrian Gonzalez, losing lefthander Nick Hagadone, and righthanders Justin Masterson, Bryan Price, and Casey Kelly along the way.

The Sox, according to a major league source, have been focusing on the Cubs’ top prospects, including righthander Trey McNutt, outfielders Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur, and third baseman/outfielder Josh Vitters.

“With an arm like that, [McNutt] definitely has upside,’’ said a National League scout working the Arizona Fall League, where McNutt has been playing for Mesa. “For me, he’s a project as a starter. He has a low-to-mid-90s fastball and he tries to blow it by people. He needs work on his curveball and secondary pitches.

“He could project more as a closer, but every organization is different in how they handle a kid like that.’’

The scout said that McNutt has a high ceiling, but when asked if he’s a deal-breaker, he said, “If I were the Cubs and I can get the leader of my organization, I wouldn’t make this a deal-breaker. Like I said, the kid has some upside, but there’s no telling which way he’s going to go.’’

The scout also likes righthander Chris Carpenter. Not the Cardinals’ ace, but the Cubs’ version.

“He doesn’t throw as hard as McNutt, but he’s a much more polished pitcher with command of all of his pitches. He’s a more complete package, and I could see this guy taking a spot in the middle of someone’s rotation,’’ the scout said.

In terms of raw ability, Vitters, 22, has it. A first-round draft pick in 2007 (third overall), the righthanded hitter with power has been moved around and is now playing some outfield. He’s off to a big start in the Fall League, hitting .405 with two homers and 10 RBIs after hitting .283 with 14 homers and 81 RBIs in Double A.

“He hasn’t come along as quickly as some would have hoped, but with that bat potential, you can’t give up on him,’’ the scout said.

The Cubs agreed to terms with Epstein last week on a five-year, $18.5 million deal, but the stipulation was they had to provide the Sox compensation to finalize the deal. According to a league source, the teams can make their own timetable on a deal, but the norm is no more than 14 days.

Both sides appear to be in a mode in which a deal must get done.

Chicago is in a fever pitch over the prospect of Epstein running the Cubs, and to back out now would be a major public relations gaffe. With Ben Cherington reportedly being told he is the new Sox GM, how could the Sox bring Epstein back?

There’s been some talk whether the Sox will allow a person or two to join Epstein. The initial thought was no. Epstein may want to bring trainer Mike Reinold with him.

Assuming the deal gets done, Epstein also will have to decide whether to allow Cubs manager Mike Quade to remain for another season or hire someone he may already have in mind.

There’s a lot of sentiment in Chicago to go with Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, but whether Epstein is in harmony with that is unknown.

Both teams have a plethora of free agent decisions and team-building to do after disappointing seasons, so time is of the essence.

“But they’d rather take their time and get this right, than make a quick decision on the compensation,’’ said one Cubs scout.

“We don’t have a lot of prospects, so I’m sure we’re trying to protect, as best we can, the ones we have.’’

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

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