Santana, Nathan moving to top of Twins' to-do list

Officials said that, once arbitration matters are wrapped, they want to get contractextensions in place for the pair.

The Dome has been packed this weekend for TwinsFest. Single-game ticket sales are more than brisk. Season-ticket sales might top 10,000. The 2007 season attendance might reach 2.4 million.

Oh, and there's the new ballpark scheduled to open in 2010.

It all allows the Twins to think big this year. Ace Johan Santana big. Closer Joe Nathan big.

Twins officials confirmed Saturday that, after the club signs its six arbitration-eligible players, it will approach Santana and Nathan about contract extensions to ensure they are in Twins uniforms when the new park opens.

"We have a lot of things going as far as the arbitration-eligibles, as most clubs do," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "You kind of let the calendar dictate our procedure. I'd like to take care of first things first, then see where things take us.

"If you want to do something, you approach the people you are responsible to and see if there's anything to be talked about."

Ryan acknowledged that he had preliminary talks with agents for both players during the winter meetings. Right now, Ryan is trying to figure out how much it will cost to pay his six arbitration-eligible players -- Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Nick Punto, Juan Rincon and Lew Ford.

Arbitration hearings begin Thursday and run through Feb. 20 in Arizona. After that, the Twins likely will sit down with agents for Santana and Nathan (Nathan's likely will be first) and start talks that could go into the regular season.

The pitchers like the idea of starting and closing in the new park.

"I know I have two more years here," Santana said. "I'm willing to work something out to stay with this team and in this city, wearing this uniform because I love this team."This is a great organization," Nathan said. "This a great city. My family loves it here. We are comfortable here. So we'd love to talk about it and see where we are at and see if we are on the same page with Terry."

The spike in the free-agent market is playing a role here. Santana will make $12 million this year and $13.25 million in 2008 before he's a free agent. But lefthander Barry Zito signed with San Francisco for an average of $18 million a season -- and Zito, age 30, hasn't won two Cy Young Awards over the past three seasons, which Santana, 27, has.

"I'm in no hurry," Santana said. "At the same time, I think the sooner the better -- and the cheaper it will be."

Nathan, with 123 saves over the past three seasons, will make $5.25 million this season and the Twins hold a $6 million option for 2008. Already a bargain, Nathan will be out-earned this season by relievers the likes of righthander Danys Baez, who signed a three-year, $19 million deal with Baltimore just for a setup role.

As for negotiations with the six arbitration-eligible players, the big three of Mauer, Cuddyer and Morneau all said talks are ongoing, but they didn't indicate that any deals were close.

"At least I know I'll be here this year," Mauer said.

"The way I look at it is that I'm getting a raise," said Cuddyer, who made $1.3 million last season and is asking for $4.25 million this year; the Twins have offered $3 million.

Morneau's arbitration hearing is scheduled for Feb. 9, Mauer's Feb. 13 and Cuddyer's Feb. 15.

The Twins' skills at the negotiating table will be as important as their on-field play this year as they try to lock up a competitive team. Twins President Dave St. Peter, who was encouraged by ticket sales this weekend, said the club would be unable to even dream about holding contract talks of this magnitude without a new ballpark on the horizon.

"There's certainly going to be limits to what we can do," St. Peter said. "But what we have always said is, what the ballpark gives us is a much better opportunity to keep the guys that we bring into this organization in the Twins organization for the long term. That remains our goal today."

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