- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The great Johan Santana ignited a major stir in the Twins' universe the other day.
But not the way you'd think.
With his free-agent clock ticking (Payday Minus Two Seasons -- And Counting), you'd think the only way Santana could shock anybody would be to say he'll be gone after 2008 unless the Twins sign him to a $200-million contract by April Fools Day.
But The Great Santana is way too professional to spit out any ultimatums like that. So what he actually said was this:
He thinks he can get better.
Better? How, exactly? By striking out 27 some night?
"I don't think that's what he means," laughs catcher Mike Redmond. "But you never know."
"I'm not sure exactly what he has in mind," says GM Terry Ryan. "But whatever it is, I'm all for it."
Better? We remind you that The Great Santana probably should have won the last three AL Cy Young awards (as opposed to "only" two out of three). We also remind you that he crushes all the active pitchers in his league in just about every number on the stat sheet over those last three seasons.
So if he does get any better, it sure isn't going to make him more affordable for this team he works for. This team he loves. This team that loves him. This team that isn't exactly working with the Yankees' budget -- and never will be.
"I would love to stay here," Santana says, "with this team, in this city, because I love everything about this team and what I do here. But at the same time, this is business. And a lot of things are out of my control. You've got to have a team that's willing to negotiate and to keep you. So if it doesn't work out that way, if that means you have to go somewhere else, it's tough. It's bad. But that's the way it is, because it's a business."
And those pesky business questions always seem to swirl around the Minnesota Twins this time of year. And every time of year.
They have had themselves a tremendous run these last six seasons. A heartwarming run. A run that serves as an inspiration to the Pirates and Royals and all those other downtrodden middle-market franchises that know they, too, will never be the Yankees.
But it is time once again to ask: Are the Twins nearing the end of this era?
Torii Hunter, the last link to the beginning of that era, is a year away from free agency. Santana is two years away. Joe Nathan, a guy who deserves to be right in the middle of the who's-the-best-closer-alive debate, is also two years away.
So as good as they should remain in their next era -- the Joe Mauer/Justin Morneau era -- the window for them to win with this current, special group of characters will stay open for only so long. They know that. They talk about it openly, in fact.
"There's a lot of guys who could be gone," says Hunter. "So that window of opportunity -- it's getting small. And we definitely -- definitely -- want to try to win (a World Series) before we get out of here together."
So no wonder the center fielder makes the assumption we always have seemed to make about the Twins -- that when his time comes, when Santana's time comes, when Nathan's time comes, they all will have a new zip code to call their own.
But maybe we shouldn't be so quick to make that assumption. Suddenly, there is a new ballpark on the Twins' horizon in 2010 (assuming the politicians stop fighting about it).
That should mean, says Ryan, that the financial impact of that park should show up in the Twins' checking account in 2009. But the GM also says we shouldn't make any other assumptions about what else it will mean.
"You know, we've retained (Chuck) Knoblauch, and we've retained (Kirby) Puckett, and we've retained (Kent) Hrbek," says Ryan. "We've retained (Rick) Aguilera. And we've retained Radke. So we've retained people. I don't think (losing all these players) is a given."
Ryan won't discuss the specifics of any of his players' contract situations. But he will say, on a general level: "I try to treat every situation as an individual situation. There isn't any one player that's the same. ... We've had great players, and (Santana) is one of them. We've had Kirby Puckett. Torii Hunter is a great player. We've got some young ones here. We've got a closer who is awfully good. But every situation is a little different. And I'll leave it at that."
So clearly, the Twins have no desire to wave goodbye to everybody. But from the standpoint of sheer irreplaceability, how could there be anyone in their midst they could less afford to wave goodbye to than The Best Pitcher in the Solar System?
Maybe, somewhere down the road, Francisco Liriano will recover from Tommy John surgery and go right back to being the 12-3, 2.16 ERA dominator he was last year. Maybe their next wave of live arms -- Matt Garza and Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey -- will live up to the hype.
But there is only one Johan Santana, just 28 and the best there is. So how can the Twins find a way to hang onto him in a world where Gil Meche is worth 11 million bucks a year and Barry Zito is worth $126 million for seven years? That's the question.
"It's not a secret, what's going on out there (in the market)," Santana says. "So what's fair is fair. I'm not asking for anything new. What I've said in the past is, the sooner they do something, the better, because I'm willing to do something. But it's going to be up to them to make something happen."
He has a way of delivering these words -- softly, calmly, soothingly -- that keep them from sounding like any kind of threat. He's going to get paid. So he has no reason to push the tension meter. Why would he want to? He isn't trying to force his way out. If anything, he's trying to savor what he has.
From the outside, these Twins might seem like just another good little team. But from the inside, the men who make up this group recognize there is something different, something powerful about the vibe that bonds them.
Redmond won a World Series in 2003 with a similar bunch of chemistry majors in Florida. Yet he still says, "This is the best group of guys, collectively, I've ever been a part of." These are men who recognize a good thing when they're living it. And Johan Santana gets that as much as any of them.
"Around here," he says, "it doesn't matter what kind of awards you've got. Once you're in there, in that clubhouse, we're all the same. We don't talk to each other different just because you won a Cy Young or American League MVP or a batting title. We put that all on the side, because we're all together. ...
"So hopefully, they can find a way to keep this group together. I know it's going to be tough for them. But I'm pretty sure they're going to try their best. We have a lot of guys here who would really love to stay here. And hopefully, they'll find a way to keep them."
But while he wonders about his teammates' future, they can't help but wonder about his -- for good reason. Because the fate of the whole franchise might rest on it.
"It'll all come down to money with Johan," Hunter says. "Barry Zito got $126 million, and you've gotta believe Johan will get more than Barry Zito. But I don't know what team he's going to get it from. I don't know if he's going to get it from the Twins. You know, at the rate we're going and what the Twins are, if you look at their past, they're going to let him go, unless they can get an extension at a discount. But Johan should be here, man. People love him here."
"In Minnesota, I can feel it when they announce my name on the nights I'm pitching. And I can hear it. When I'm walking up to the bullpen to warm up, you can hear people clapping. You can see the look in people's eyes. And it's cool. I love Minnesota."
-- Johan Santana
For some reason, the rest of America hasn't quite comprehended the magnitude of this man -- as a pitcher and as one of baseball's classiest human beings. But he is now so huge in Minnesota, they might name a lake after him one of these days -- if he stays.
"In Minnesota, I can feel it when they announce my name on the nights I'm pitching," Santana says. "And I can hear it. When I'm walking up to the bullpen to warm up, you can hear people clapping. You can see the look in people's eyes. And it's cool. I love Minnesota."
In Minnesota, they have been lucky enough to see him go out these the last three years and reach a historic level of domination. If you just look at his winning percentage (.696 or better in all three years), the innings he has pitched (228 or more in all three years) and his spectacular strikeout and hits-allowed rates, only one other pitcher in history has had three straight seasons like this -- Randy Johnson (from 2000-02).
So when you hear this man speak about getting even better, you sure do feel sorry for the hitters.
Except Johan Santana isn't speaking about them.
"When I talk about being better," he says, "I'm talking not just about baseball, but about life."
But this is already a man who seems to understand what's meaningful in life. The countryside in and around his remote home town -- Tovar, Venezuela -- was devastated by mudslides in 2005. Santana has worked tirelessly, and donated heavily, to help repair the damage. And his latest gift was particularly astonishing: He bought a fire truck from a Minnesota fire department -- and donated it to his town.
"I have some good friends who are firefighters," he says. "And when I was talking to them, it was hard to imagine what was going on in that moment (when the mudslides hit). So I just tried to help."
When you hear these stories, you understand the fascinating dynamics of his situation. "Greed" would never be a word you could use to describe Johan Santana. But he is also business-savvy enough to know what he is worth.
Then you think about his team, knowing it can't afford to lose him on one level, wondering if there is any way it can afford to keep him on another level.
So the Minnesota Twins have a lot to ponder, don't they? And while they do that pondering, the best pitcher in baseball will keep on striving to be something that barely seems possible:
Better than he already is.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Johan Santana, the game's best pitcher, is likely to land a colossal free-agent contract after the 2008 season -- just not with the Twins.