The Twins left the door open for Michael Cuddyer on Thursday, even after signing Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract, but by day's end, it sounded as if Cuddyer would walk away anyway.

The Denver Post reported that the Rockies were the favorites to land Cuddyer after making what is believed to be a three-year, $27 million offer. The Twins were not optimistic.

Minnesota had a standing three-year, $25 million offer for Cuddyer for more than one week before signing Willingham. Once Willingham agreed to terms, the Twins pulled their offer to Cuddyer but the dialogue continued.

Twins General Manager Terry Ryan told Cuddyer's agent, Casey Close, that the offer still stood, but if Cuddyer accepted, Ryan would have needed special approval from Twins CEO Jim Pohlad, since the deal would have pushed the Twins past their $100 million payroll target.

Willingham will make $7 million next season, pushing the Twins projected payroll to about $96 million.

Last week, Ryan was asked if he'd be willing to exceed his payroll budget for the right move, and he said he'd have to check with Pohlad. Ryan calls this "the three-block walk," since Target Field is about three blocks from Pohlad's office in downtown Minneapolis.

The Twins have Willingham penciled in at right field, with Denard Span in center and Ben Revere in left. The lineup would look a lot more potent with Willingham in left, Span in center and Cuddyer in right, allowing Revere to serve as a fourth outfielder.

So Ryan kept contemplating that three-block walk, while Cuddyer deliberated. The Twins have been surprised in recent days that they didn't get more of a response from their longest-tenured player.

Internally, some have speculated that his heart was no longer pulling him back to Minnesota after a frustrating 99-loss season.

Insiders say Cuddyer's original asking price was three years, $36 million, so with the Rockies or the Twins, he knew he'd be settling for far less.

With Willingham in the fold, a strong argument can be made that the Twins should spend whatever extra money they have on pitching.

The starting rotation includes Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing. They're hoping to add at least one starter so they can move Duensing to the bullpen.

The Twins know they could use at least one more impact signing. Let's say that player costs $8 million next season. The starting pitching options, at that price, don't entice them.

Edwin Jackson might get $8 million or more next year, but it won't be from the Twins, who consider him too erratic. Roy Oswalt is a 34-year-old injury risk.

The Twins undoubtedly will seek bargains on the sales racks, especially when the market turns, and free agents start getting squeezed.

So it's all in a holding pattern, for now. The Twins and Cuddyer's camp are keeping everything hush-hush. After signing Willingham on Thursday, Ryan decided to wait to address the media until Friday.

"He is working on some other things today before leaving the office for our company holiday party," Mike Herman, the Twins director of baseball communications, said in an e-mail to reporters.

Close has declined daily interview requests, and Cuddyer has been unavailable for comment. Meanwhile, the Twins' biggest decision of the offseason remains on hold..

Minor-league signings

Add three more names to the growing list of players the Twins have signed to minor-league deals with spring training invites:

• J.R. Towles -- He caught 54 games for the Astros last season and batted .184 with three homers and 11 RBI. The Twins' catching depth chart now includes Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, Drew Butera, Rene Rivera and Towles.

• Steve Pearce -- The corner infielder and outfielder played 50 games for the Pirates last season, batting .202 with one homer and 10 RBI.

• Aaron Thompson -- The lefthanded pitcher posted a 7.04 ERA in four appearances for the Pirates last season, including one start. He also went 1-0 with a 2.84 ERA in five games, including four starts for Class AAA Indianapolis.

The Twins have now invited 24 non-roster players to spring training. That includes minor-league free agents and prospects such as infielder Brian Dozier and catcher Chris Herr- mann, who aren't on the 40-man roster but will be in camp anyway.