Inside MLB | After eight years, Francona leaves Red Sox

A year ago, then−Boston Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell was viewed as the eventual successor to manager Terry Francona. But that future seemed unfathomable, as Francona’s job was among the safest in the league. So, when offered a chance to become the skipper of the Toronto Blue Jays, Farrell jumped at the opportunity, passing up the position he had coveted since coming to Boston in 2006.

Little did Farrell — or anyone else — know that just 11 months later, that job could have been his.

After a disastrous September during which the Red Sox went 7−20, blew a 9.5 game Wild Card lead to the Tampa Bay Rays and fell short of the playoffs, despite being viewed as a preseason contender for the World Series title, the team and Francona parted ways.

General manager Theo Epstein painted the decision as mutual. Rather than explicitly firing Francona, the Red Sox simply chose not to exercise a two−year option in his contract that would have kept him in Boston through 2013. As a result, the Sox let go of a man who many would call the best manager in the franchise’s 104−year history.

Francona’s tenure in Boston was defined by the Red Sox’s World Championships in 2004 — his first year on the job — and 2007, but not merely for his on−field decisions. The average Joe could have pinch run Dave Roberts in Game 4 of the pivotal 2004 American League Championship Series and called for a stolen base. Yet, only a down−to−earth, team−first manager like Francona could have aptly deflected the negative media attention that comes with a seemingly insurmountable 3−0 series deficit and paved the way for the historic comeback.

Unfortunately, by the end of the 2011 regular season, it became clear to Francona that this no longer was his team. He would still play cribbage with second baseman Dustin Pedroia in the clubhouse before games and customarily congratulate players returning to the dugout after home runs, but when the team came upon rough waters, “Tito” could not provide the leadership necessary to right the ship.

Francona is a skilled manager of people and a shrewd baseball coach, but he is not a leader in the way that second−year Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson is. And unlike in the 2004 campaign, Francona did not have the self−proclaimed “idiots'” clubhouse chemistry to support him this past month.

Now, Epstein and team President/CEO Larry Lucchino must find the right man to replace him. Farrell — who has experience in both coaching and player development and familiarity with the frantic Boston media scene — would have been perfect. Current Rays skipper, Joe Maddon, a finalist when Francona was hired eight years ago, would also have fit the bill. But instead of having either in their own dugout, the Red Sox are now tasked with bringing in a manager who can match wits against them in an increasingly competitive AL East.

And just as the Red Sox are likely to have a plethora of candidates for their new opening, Francona should have no shortage of suitors for his services. He has already been tied to both the Chicago White Sox, with whom he was a minor league manager in the early−1990s, and the Washington Nationals, a team on the rise that could use his experience to take the next step. There is little doubt that Tito will land on his feet, but there is plenty about whether the Red Sox will do the same.

Epstein and Lucchino could begin their search with the big names: former New York Mets manager and current ESPN broadcaster Bobby Valentine, former New York Yankees manager and current MLB executive Joe Torre or former Cincinnati Reds manager and current Philadelphia Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin. Or, they could stay within the organization and promote veteran bench coach DeMarlo Hale, who received Francona’s endorsement on Friday.

But regardless of whom the next Red Sox manager is, the situation he will face is at once tantalizing and terrifying. On the one hand, the team has as much talent as any in baseball, and is likely to bounce back with another 90−plus−win season and a chance at the pennant in 2012. On the other, there is a clear dissonance in the clubhouse, where the squad is more a series of cliques than a cohesive unit and — with Jason Varitek’s decline and David Ortiz’s impending free agency — may not have a “face.”

In addition to a new skipper, the Red Sox need a new identity, or — in Francona’s words — a new voice.

When the Rays found themselves in uncharted waters in 2008, Maddon earned the respect of his players by joining the team’s Mohawk hairdo campaign, and rallying Tampa Bay to the World Series for the first time in the franchise’s history.

When the Yankees came upon hard times after the 2008 season, they traded for the fun−loving Nick Swisher, who helped loosen up their locker room during the team’s 2009 championship run.

The 2012 Red Sox need a Joe Maddon, and they could use a Nick Swisher, too. But those two are one of a kind.

If Epstein and Lucchino are to make Boston forget the collapse and revive the energy the team had in 2004 and 2007, they will need to find someone like them.