Epstein's no-vote of confidence opens door for Girardi

Cubs president apparently makes clear he's open to upgrade over Sveum

Manager Dale Sveum on the Cubs' struggles on their road trip.

Here we go again.

Thanks to a handful of words Theo Epstein didn't say the other day in Milwaukee, it's time for the semi-annual Joe Girardi Watch in the Chicago media and around Midwestern taverns. The default option as the next manager of the Cubs once again is fodder for public discussion, and there's a twist.

This time, the Cubs will pursue Girardi, provided they get a chance.

Will they get that chance? That's the question. It's also worth considering if they might pursue another alternative to manager Dale Sveum — say Yankees bench coach Tony Pena — if Girardi is not available. But clearly, the Yankees manager is atop the unpublished wish list.

With Girardi at the end of his contract and the Yanks on the outside looking in at the playoffs, the timing is right for Epstein to consider making a play.

Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner and President Randy Levine aren't going to fire Girardi. But that doesn't mean the 48-year-old Northwestern grad will sign off on his next contract without considering his options.

When the season ends, the Yankees will approach Girardi about a contract extension. He gets a chance to pick what he wants — the security of a new contract in New York or a chance to become one of this offseason's most intriguing free agents.

As one of the leading candidates for the American League Manager of the Year award, Girardi gets to make the call. If he wants he can stay and work on building the next Yankees powerhouse — without Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera or Andy Pettitte — or he can pick a landing place elsewhere, with the two most tempting in Washington (there's no clear successor to Davey Johnson) and at Wrigley Field.

Epstein, the Cubs president, and general manager Jed Hoyer are smart to leave themselves open to upgrades as Sveum heads into the last season on the three-year contract he landed after Mike Maddux pulled out of the managerial search in 2011. If Girardi and his wife, Kim, are willing to uproot their children from schools in suburban New York, it would be difficult — almost unthinkable — for Epstein/Hoyer to ignore Girardi, as Jim Hendry did when he hired Lou Piniella to replace Dusty Baker.

It's remarkable Girardi's head hasn't exploded this season given the Alex Rodriguez melodrama and Jeter's limited availability, not to mention crushing injuries to Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson and setbacks on another dozen fronts, including an underproductive farm system.

It speaks volumes about Girardi's leadership that the Yankees are on pace to win 85 games, which has kept them alive in the AL wild-card race. He has been responsible for a six-win swing, according to the Pythagorean standings, making this the second best of his seven years as a manager, behind only the 2009 championship season.

Girardi's rotation has a 4.19 earned-run average, higher than the Cubs' and White Sox's. Within a franchise-record 55 players, he has used nine starting pitchers, the same as the Cubs and only one fewer than the Sox, and 19 bullpen arms. That's only three fewer than the Cubs, who practically have needed name tags.

And Girardi's lineup? Alfonso Soriano was a lifesaver for a team that has had the following as its primary players: Jayson Nix, third base; Eduardo Nunez, shortstop; Lyle Overbay, first base; Chris Stewart, catcher; Vernon Wells, left field; and Travis Hafner, DH.

Girardi is in the last year of a three-year contract that reportedly pays him $3 million per season — half of what Mike Scioscia makes in his sweet deal with the Angels. He has a long extension and a big raise coming if he stays in New York. If Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts gets a chance to talk to him, he's likely to put on the same full-court press that persuaded Epstein to leave the Red Sox.

Girardi is not the only possible option on the Cubs' radar. The Rangers' Ron Washington and the Twins' Ron Gardenhire could draw attention if they find themselves unemployed. Maddux also could be back on the table if there's a widespread shake-up in Texas. Pena is attractive, in part because the Cubs are exploring ways to get better production from Starlin Castro and provide an ideal environment for Latin American prospects such as Javy Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora.

Castro's stalled development is a major issue. Epstein appreciates Sveum's stoic presence throughout two awful seasons but has begun to question whether someone else could get more out of the organization's young players.

If Sveum remains in place, look for Mariano Duncan or others with Latin roots to be added to the coaching staff in some capacity. Kevin Long, the Yankees hitting coach, played a big role in Robinson Cano's development and, like Girardi, is at the end of his contract.

It's not the win-loss record that bothers Epstein. The question is whether he's building the best possible base for success in 2015 and beyond, and he's open to improvement everywhere, including with his field staff.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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