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Andrew Friedman, Theo Epstein are on Cubs’ radar for GM post

Andrew Friedman (left) Theo Epste| Getty Images AP

Andrew Friedman (left) and Theo Epstein | Getty Images, AP

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Updated: November 15, 2011 12:31PM

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Former Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona might not be headed to the White Sox, but that doesn’t mean Chicago is out of contention as a landing spot for the two-time World Series-winning manager.

The scenario involves a quick-sequence domino effect that starts with the Cubs landing Red Sox general manager and Francona ally Theo Epstein for their GM vacancy, an effort that could gain significant momentum over the next several days and eventually result in a GM-manager package deal.

The Cubs’ interest in Epstein, 37, is strong. The biggest question had been whether Epstein would be willing, or allowed, to leave.

But as the fallout persists after the Red Sox’ epic collapse, there’s a growing sense among major-league executives that Epstein’s superiors believe they might be better off with a leadership change in baseball operations.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts sidestepped the issue when asked directly during a Fox Business Network interview Monday whether Epstein would be his next GM.

‘‘I don’t know. There’s a lot of good candidates out there,’’ Ricketts told FBN. ‘‘We’re going to talk to a handful of them, and I’m sure we’ll come up with the right fit for the team.’’

Another top candidate is Tampa Bay Rays GM Andrew Friedman, who has his small-revenue team in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.

One high-ranking rival executive called Friedman ‘‘the best choice’’ for the Cubs and called Epstein ‘‘the safe choice.’’

Contrary to some reports, sources say the Cubs haven’t attempted to contact Friedman.

But the perception that Friedman wouldn’t come to Chicago given the synergy of the Rays’ owner-GM-manager dynamic might not be as airtight as many think. While those close to him believe he won’t leave, the Cubs job is the only other GM job that’s said to intrigue him.

Friedman won’t discuss his status.

‘‘Right now, it’s almost embarrassing for the topic of conversation to be about me and not on our players, not on what we’ve accomplished over the last four years, even more specifically over the last month or the last two innings of Wednesday’s game,’’ Friedman said before the Rays took on the Texas Rangers in Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Monday.

‘‘I understand it goes with the territory, and at the end of the season, when we’re done playing, it’s obviously something I’ll address. But right now, all of my focus is on this team.’’

With Friedman’s busy schedule in October, it might become a moot point if the process with Epstein accelerates, especially in the context of the Ricketts family’s fascination with the Red Sox/Fenway Park model that dates to their lengthy process of buying the team.

And it does seem to be gaining speed.

Top Epstein assistant Ben Cherington, who served as co-general manager in Epstein’s brief absence six years ago, has been conspicuously involved in top-level meetings since the season ended last week — including the one that led to the decision not to pick up Francona’s option — suggesting the Red Sox are assuring continuity if Epstein bolts.

Meanwhile, Red Sox officials, including Epstein, have almost gone out of their way to avoid saying Epstein will be back for the final year of his contract, while reports out of Boston increasingly suggest Epstein’s interest in the Cubs.

‘‘You don’t think we have a full enough plate right now? You want to raise another question like that?’’ Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said Friday when asked during Francona’s news conference whether the Sox would give permission to the Cubs if they asked to interview Epstein. ‘‘We’re not prepared to answer that question here. Besides, Theo is under contract with us, so it is an issue that has not been addressed or discussed.’’

Assuming Epstein’s interest and assuming Red Sox owner John Henry doesn’t deny the Cubs’ permission to talk to him, the Cubs’ interest could get tested when/if — as major-league execs expect — the Sox demand player compensation to let Epstein out of his contract.

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