Ford revives the position of chief operating officer, reassigns key top executives and adds duties for a few, as it prepares for Alan Mulally’s departure – though the company says its current CEO will stay on at least through 2014, maybe longer.

Filling the COO slot is Mark Fields, 51, a move that has been expected for months, though Mulally, 67, makes no commitment to Fields as his eventual successor.

“The announcement today is about developing the individuals and developing the team,” he says in a conference call to discuss the moves with reporters and automotive analysts.

Under the realignment, Joe Hinrichs, 45, takes over as executive vice president and president-The Americas, filling Fields’ former position. He moves over from head of Asia Pacific Africa, a vacancy that will be occupied by Ford of China CEO David Schoch, 61.

Stephen Odell, 57, who currently oversees Europe, is named executive vice president and president-Europe, Middle East and Africa, taking over responsibility for an additional two markets.

Jim Farley, 50, is elevated to executive vice president of Global Marketing, Sales and Service and Lincoln. Adding oversight of Lincoln worldwide gives Farley operational responsibility.

John Lawler, 46, formerly chief financial officer-Ford Asia Pacific Africa, takes over as CEO of Ford China.

Hinrichs, Odell and Farley will report directly to Fields, who will report to Mulally. Fields will take over day-to-day operation and lead Ford’s weekly business-plan reviews, but Mulally says he also will sit in on those meetings while taking more of a long-term view on the auto maker’s business.

“I’ve not had a COO before,” Mulally says. “I’m looking forward to nurturing and supporting Mark and contributing. I’m going to step back and focus on helping Mark with strategic issues of improving One Ford.”

Along with Fields, Hinrichs, Odell and Farley have been considered candidates to replace Mulally at CEO some day, but the new alignment, approved by the board Oct. 19, officially positions Fields as the front-runner.

Unlike its recruitment of Mulally, who came to Ford from Boeing, the auto maker is unlikely to look outside for a successor.

“I’ve said in the past I would prefer (the next CEO) to come from the inside, and I still feel that way,” Chairman Bill Ford says. “I would be surprised if it didn’t come from inside.

“As a chairman, one of my responsibilities is to always look at talent, externally and internally, and I’ll continue to do that. But I’m comfortable with the team.”

Bill Ford credits Fields for his role in helping to define the auto maker’s strategic direction ahead of Mulally’s arrival, saying Fields “stuck to the plan, learned from it and showed tremendous fortitude in grinding through the process.

“Mark is a leader. It’s been quite a journey for him and one I’m proud of. He’s done a wonderful job.

But he also emphasizes Mulally could remain at the helm beyond 2014. “We’re fortunate to have Alan’s continued leadership,” he says. “Whatever happens, Alan is here two more years. We could go longer.”

with Byron Pope