Hendry’s successor won’t be a no-name

The Chicago Cubs are the greatest remaining cause in North American professional sports, equal parts pathos and promise.

We don’t have time for a full tragic history, but I’ll hit the key points for the readers from Krakow who happened upon this column: The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. They have the third-worst record in the National League. There is a goat involved.

Wrigley Field, while beloved, is in dire need of renovation. No surprise, attendance is down.

And did I mention that the franchise is looking for a new general manager?

Since it’s not much fun to muse about the pace of labor talks (slow, at the moment) or the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bankruptcy proceedings, the Cubs’ search for Jim Hendry’s successor is the topic du jour within industry circles. This is baseball’s answer to running for president, a position that requires commitment of mind, body, and soul.

The job is highly coveted, because the person who gets it will become rich and famous, if he isn’t already. The title also comes with the ultimate incentive in this ultracompetitive, ego-driven business: Win and you will be revered in Chicago — and probably elsewhere — forever.

So, yes, the interest in this job is heavy.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts is heading the search, but good luck getting him to tell you what color the uniforms will be next year. He hasn’t said much publicly since he announced Hendry’s dismissal last month; he declined to speak with FOXSports.com for this story.

What follows is a blend of facts and analysis surrounding one of the hottest topics in baseball, gleaned from conversations with numerous people in the industry this week:

• There is almost no chance that a new GM will be in place by the end of this month, sources say. Ricketts is moving deliberately, thus keeping alive the possibility that he can woo an established general manager whose team will participate in the playoffs.

"They are going to try to get the biggest name they can," one player agent said.

• The Cubs have not made formal requests to interview Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, Tampa Bay Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman or San Diego Padres senior vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes, sources say. Not yet, anyway. All four have been mentioned in media reports as potential candidates.

• On the surface, Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein is Ricketts’ ideal candidate.

Epstein meets all three criteria Ricketts outlined during the August news conference: He comes from a winning culture, consults advanced statistical metrics in his decision-making and has a strong commitment to player development. If Epstein were to win a World Series in Chicago, he would be the most beloved baseball executive in the modern history of two great cities.

There is only one problem with this scenario: Epstein has a contract for 2012 — in Boston.

The Red Sox are on the verge of their seventh playoff berth in Epstein’s nine seasons. The franchise is in the midst of its greatest era, in the baseball and business departments. For what possible reason would Red Sox owner John Henry — who, again, has control over Epstein’s services for one more year — allow him to break the contract and leave?

• Let’s not forget: When the Red Sox hired Epstein after the 2002 season, he had no experience as a general manager. And he was their second choice. Initially, they wanted Beane.

It’s easy to understand why Beane would have appeal to Ricketts, even though the A’s will miss the playoffs for the seventh time in the past eight seasons. There is a cachet associated with his role as an innovator in statistical analysis within the sport — the sort of thing that would impress an owner with a background in investment banking, bond trading, and e-finance.

Even though Beane has been the Oakland GM since after the 1997 season, and even though his current team isn’t very good, he will become a hot name once more among casual fans because of this month’s "Moneyball" movie premiere. There is no risk of Ricketts introducing Beane at a news conference, only to have the next day’s headlines scream, "Billy who?"

One detail we can’t overlook: Beane is a minority partner within the A’s ownership group. Presumably, he would need to be bought out in order to leave the organization.

• Friedman has done the near-impossible, winning the big-money American League East with the low-budget Rays in 2008 and 2010. If Ricketts values fiscal pragmatism over all else, he will hire Friedman. But that wasn’t part of the criteria Ricketts disclosed last month.

The Cubs opened the season with a payroll of $125 million, according to the USA Today salary database. The Rays were at one-third of that. If Friedman leaves Tampa Bay for Chicago, he will be taking on a very different job, one with considerably higher expectations than the one he has. Frankly, the same is true of Beane.

Apart from that, Friedman might not want to leave Tampa Bay. He has a strong relationship with owner Stuart Sternberg.

• Ricketts has suggested publicly that prior GM experience is a plus, but not required. If he hires a first-time general manager, many in the industry expect that it would be Rick Hahn.

Hahn, assistant GM of the crosstown White Sox, grew up in the Chicago area as a Cubs fan. He has degrees from Michigan, Northwestern and Harvard. He spent two years as a sports agent, giving him valuable expertise in contract negotiations. The White Sox don’t want to lose him — and they certainly don’t want to lose him to the Cubs.

If Ricketts asks for permission to interview Hahn, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf will be faced with a difficult decision: allow Hahn to speak with the Cubs or ensure that he keeps Hahn by promoting him to general manager while firing or reassigning current GM Kenny Williams.

• Ricketts could get creative with the title of his next general manager, as a way of attracting a more established candidate.

In most big-league organizations, GMs report to team presidents, and team presidents report to owners. Apparently, that won’t be the arrangement with the Cubs. Ricketts has said publicly that the new GM will report directly to him, even though the team has a president, Crane Kenney.

So, perhaps Ricketts could hire the new GM as his “president of baseball operations,” while shifting Kenney to “president of business operations.” The autonomy of reporting directly to ownership would actually be a drawing card to established GMs.

If “president” is any part of the new GM’s title, that means a higher salary.

• Hendry’s greatest weakness as a general manager was granting large contracts to players who subsequently demonstrated (by performance and/or conduct) that they did not deserve them. So, a candidate with ties to a large, but efficient payroll could have particular appeal. The Yankees, Phillies, Twins, Tigers, Cardinals and Rangers are spending more than $90 million on players this year — without carrying a glut of bad contracts.

• Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila, who has interviewed for GM openings in the past, recently signed a four-year extension to remain in Detroit. Given that Avila signed the contract only last month, it’s unlikely that the Tigers would grant him permission to interview with the Cubs. Also, one source indicated that Avila’s new contract includes a clause that allows the Tigers to deny him permission to interview for other GM jobs.

• Lastly, before we read too much into Ricketts’ past statements, it’s important to note that he’s entitled to change his mind. In fact, he did so very recently. In mid-June, he told reporters that he had “100 percent confidence” . . . in Jim Hendry.