Twins trying to figure out what to do with Santana

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins just lost one popular and
valuable player to free agency, and now they're staring hard at the
possibility of trading another.

Johan Santana is for sale, and the trade talk has thrust the
Twins into baseball's spotlight. With Torii Hunter gone, they're
listening to offers for Santana and weighing the pros and cons of
dealing one of the game's greatest pitchers.

"Our first choice is to sign him," general manager Bill Smith
said carefully, after pausing to answer a question regarding the
one year Santana has remaining on his current deal.

An extension of his stay in Minnesota has appeared increasingly
unrealistic since prices for pitchers escalated around this time
last year.

Though the Twins plan to move to a new ballpark in 2010, they
won't receive that revenue boost until then. With Santana's value
soaring and their middle-of-the-pack payroll not about to spike
significantly, a new contract for the two-time Cy Young Award
winner could account for one-fourth of the money Minnesota spends
on player salaries.

"We're going to be focused on making smart baseball
decisions," team president Dave St. Peter said Tuesday. "That's
the way we have always operated. It's the way the Pohlads expect us
to operate, and we have no issues with that."

Owner Carl Pohlad has long been criticized both locally and
nationally for not using more of his banking fortune on the roster,
and Twins loyalists have been complaining about losing Hunter and
perhaps more stars while county sales taxes are being collected for
the new ballpark.

St. Peter acknowledged the frustration fans are feeling, but he
defended the team's philosophy of not tying up future payrolls with
heavily back-loaded deals.

"I don't think the Torii Hunter decision would've worked out
any differently in a new building," he said. "It still comes down
to making smart baseball decisions."

The Twins offered the 32-year-old center fielder a $45 million,
three-year contract, but Hunter got a $90 million, five-year deal
from the Los Angeles Angels, an agreement scheduled to be finalized
Wednesday. For Minnesota, that's a budget buster, and Santana's
expected asking price probably will be, too.

His agent, Peter Greenberg, has been silent on the issue this
year. In an e-mail on Tuesday, he declined to comment specifically
on the situation.

"Just waiting and seeing what will happen," Greenberg said.

Last January, he warned that the Twins would have to "do
something soon" if they wanted to retain Santana, who will make
$13.25 million this season. With free agency that much closer for
him, the conceivability of an extension has clearly decreased. The
$126 million, seven-year deal that fellow left-hander Barry Zito
was given by the San Francisco Giants last season set a new
standard, and indications are that Santana will command much more
than that.

The Twins have never denied the possibility that they're better
off trading Santana, who turns 29 in March, and they've got a lot
of work to do on an offense that ranked 25th in the majors with 718
runs scored last year.

Though Santana can veto a trade to any team due to a clause in
his current contract, and his suitor must be confident it can sign
him to a new deal before coughing up top prospects or major-league
talent, the thin free-agent market makes him an attractive target.
The Twins, at least, could count on a better return from a Santana
trade this year than the two compensatory draft picks they would
receive if he leaves as a free agent after next season.

St. Peter said Santana "is a prominent part of our
season-ticket renewal" package but declined to be specific about
what that will look like.

"He's part of that mix, and he's going to continue to be as
long as he's here," St. Peter said. "As long as he's under
contract with the Twins, he will continue to be a major part of our
marketing plan."

Baseball's winter meetings are next week, and Smith's hotel
suite is sure to be a busy place.

The natural assumption is that he'll have to resolve Santana's
situation one way or another over the next month, but he downplayed
any urgency by pointing to Oakland's recent decisions.

The A's, with spending that mirrors the Twins, made the playoffs
five times in a seven-year span with many similar predicaments.
Before the 2005 season, Oakland traded aces Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder before they were due big raises and received a bounty of
prospects. But in 2006, they kept Zito and went to the AL
Championship Series before ultimately letting him leave.

"The answer to the question, 'Can you do it?'" Smith said.
"Absolutely you can."