Will Theo Epstein be next to leave?

BOSTON -- Before the Boston Red Sox can advance too deeply in their managerial search, there is another order of business that the club must address with some urgency in the coming days.

Namely, what they plan to do in the event another club comes calling for general manager Theo Epstein, especially since, according to one major league source close to Epstein, it's "50-50" the GM would leave for the right situation.

"I wouldn't be shocked either way,'' the source said. "I know he's not dying in the Red Sox job, and if he went to the Cubs and they won, he'd be a Hall of Fame general manager.''

The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908. The Red Sox had not won one since 1918 until Epstein became GM before the 2003 season, then won two World Series titles in the span of four seasons, in 2004 and 2007. The Cubs have a new owner, Tom Ricketts, who fired incumbent GM Jim Hendry during the season. Red Sox ownership, as recently as Friday night at the announcement of manager Terry Francona's departure, would not clarify their intentions regarding the Sox GM.

CEO Larry Lucchino noted that Epstein was still under contract. Team chairman Tom Werner said that they regarded Epstein as one of the best general managers in baseball, but went no further. Back in late August, when Cubs speculation first surfaced, majority owner John W. Henry said it only demonstrated how highly regarded Epstein was in the game, but he too stopped there.

The last time Henry publicly addressed Epstein's long-term future with the team was in spring training. When asked about extending Epstein's contract, Henry said, "Things are going extremely well from our vantage point and from his vantage point. I can't even tell you, I really don't know, when his contract is up. We haven't talked contracts. I think the important thing is that we're all extremely happy working together.''

Asked about the Epstein-to-the-Cubs rumors on Monday, Ricketts was noncommittal.

"I don't know; there's a lot of good candidates out there," Ricketts said on Fox Business Network. "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."

Epstein has told confidants that he feels great loyalty toward the ball club and Henry, believes in honoring a contract that has a year remaining, and feels an obligation to make sure the house is in order before he contemplates making a move. The team's September collapse, a gut punch to the entire organization and one that led to Francona's exit, has complicated his decision even further.

On the other hand, Epstein will be beginning his 10th year as Sox GM, and a decade on the job, as Pat Riley, the Hall of Fame basketball coach has observed, is a good time to think about moving on. The impact you're making can start to lessen, the thinking goes, as there is a growing sense that the need for a new voice might be welcome and that it's time to take on new challenges to continue growing, personally and professionally.

There also is the sense that the loyalty Epstein feels toward Henry is reciprocal, and that Henry would not stand in the way if Epstein wanted to pursue another opportunity. The Cubs' position is not the only one available, although it makes considerable sense in that the Cubs, like the Red Sox, have deep pockets, have a passionate following, and, as noted earlier, provide a unique opportunity for Epstein to etch his name permanently as savior of two storied franchises. The Cubs also could offer Epstein the club presidency, a position that is not available to Epstein at the Red Sox as long as Lucchino is in place.

While becoming club president would represent a promotion, the business side, which Lucchino is intimately involved with, has never held appeal for Epstein. He almost certainly would seek a position much like that held by Detroit's David Dombrowski, who is the Tigers' president and GM and delegates much of the business obligations to subordinates.

But the Cubs' job is by no means the only opportunity. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim recently announced that they were parting ways with GM Tony Reagins, and the Angels are a club with strong ownership, considerable resources and a Southern California lifestyle that Epstein grew to love in his previous work for the San Diego Padres.

What would the Red Sox do if Epstein left? The major league source said he would be "very surprised" if the club did not offer the position to Epstein's top assistant, Ben Cherington, who has been with the organization since 1999 and enjoys a good working relationship within the baseball operations department as well as with ownership.

The Sox could take another run at Oakland Athletics president Billy Beane, whom they hired once only to have him turn down the job hours later, a sequence that led to Epstein's hiring. Or they could see if someone such as Tampa Bay's Andrew Friedman has grown weary of competing with the big-money teams in the AL East and becomes available. But Cherington would offer a degree of continuity that might prove decisive if Epstein leaves.

Still, any manager seeking employment with the Sox will want some clarity as to whom he will be working for, and customarily, GMs get to choose their managers. Epstein is overseeing the managerial search now, though Cherington also will have a key role. Among the names that have surfaced in internal discussions are Indians coach Sandy Alomar Jr., Rays coach Dave Martinez, Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin, minor league manager Ryne Sandberg and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who has a mutual option to return to St. Louis.

So if the Cubs -- or any other team -- intend to make a move for Epstein, expect that it will come soon. Perhaps even this week.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.