The Twins have begun listening to trade talks involving Johan Santana after exchanging recent contract proposals with the two-time Cy Young Award winner and blinking at his asking price.
According to people familiar with the discussions, the Twins made Santana a five-year, $93 million offer this month, and Santana's camp countered with a request for about $126 million.
The Twins told Santana's agent, Peter Greenberg, they were willing to top the five-year, $91.5 million deal the Cubs gave pitcher Carlos Zambrano in August.
But Greenberg countered by citing the seven-year, $126 million deal the Giants handed Barry Zito last December.
The Twins insist all hope of signing Santana isn't lost, that a compromise could eventually be reached, but other teams have found he is no longer off limits in trade discussions.
On Wednesday, word of Santana's availability remained mostly a whisper in major league circles, but it's expected to become a roar before the winter meetings, Dec. 3-6.
The suitors could include the Mets, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels.
Earlier this month at the general managers' meetings, Twins GM Bill Smith repeatedly said the goal was to sign Santana, not trade him.
Asked Wednesday if that stance had changed, Smith said: "I'm not commenting on contracts or trades. There's no benefit to the club, the player, or the agent. So I take the fifth."
Greenberg also declined comment.
The Twins were not surprised by Santana's request.
Zito's contract, negotiated by agent Scott Boras, is the largest ever signed by a pitcher.
Santana, 28, is eligible for free agency after next season, and privately, the Twins acknowledge he is superior to Zito, 29, a fellow lefthander.
But if Santana is determined to become the highest-paid pitcher in baseball, trading him could prove difficult.
For the Twins to get the return they'd want -- likely three or four high-quality young players -- the other team would need assurances it could keep Santana beyond 2008.
With a complete no-trade clause, Santana would have serious leverage, but there is no guarantee any team would give him Zito-type money.
The Mets, for example, might have the burning need for a front-line starter. They might have young prospects to package for the Twins (including outfielders Carlos Gomez, Fernando Martinez and Lastings Milledge).
But even with a similar need for pitching last offseason, the Mets drew a line in the sand with Zito. Their best offer was for five years and $75 million.
The current free agent pitching market is thin, but Santana isn't the only pitcher on the trade market. Teams also have inquired about Baltimore's Erik Bedard, Florida's Dontrelle Willis and Oakland's Joe Blanton and Dan Haren.
Unlike Santana, none of those others can become a free agent after 2008.
Smith has said he isn't afraid to take Santana into the season with the contract issue unresolved. The Twins could pair Santana with All-Star lefthander Francisco Liriano, hoping to rekindle their magic of 2006.
And if they fall from contention, they could always move Santana at the trade deadline.
Either way, unless Santana lowers his asking price considerably, the chances he'll remain with the Twins in 2009 seem increasingly remote.
Indications are the Twins also exchanged recent contract proposals with closer Joe Nathan.
Like Santana, Nathan is a free agent after 2008, so if the sides can't reach a deal, the Twins could begin entertaining trade offers on both fronts.
Mariano Rivera raised the bar for all closers when he signed his recent three-year, $45 million deal with the Yankees.