Departure leaves another big hole for Twins to fill

Given their lack of help in the minors and history going after free agents, a trade for a center fielder could be likely.

Twins players believed Torii Hunter was going to leave the team this offseason even before manager Ron Gardenhire pulled him off the field for a bow during the final home game of 2007.

"About a 90 percent or better chance that he would be with a different team," closer Joe Nathan said. "Until it happens, you hoped it wouldn't, but it did.

"I think it happened quicker than I thought it would happen."

The Twins will miss Hunter's presence in center field and in the clubhouse. Now that Hunter is hanging with Rally Monkey after getting a five-year, $90 million deal from the Angels, Twins players contacted Thursday want to see how GM Bill Smith responds.

Twins players know Hunter's $12 million salary from the 2007 season is off the books and that they have several solid pitching prospects they could deal. They expect to see those resources used to reload.

With staff ace Johan Santana a Twin -- for now -- along with a solid bullpen, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and other developing players, some Twins just aren't ready to concede the AL Central by Thanksgiving.

"It gives our front office a chance to go out and find another center fielder, whether it's free agency or trade," outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. "You have to go out and make something happen, which I think they will."

Aaron Rowand and Andruw Jones remain available free-agent center fielders. Boston is in position to deal Coco Crisp -- although the Chicago White Sox in recent days have reportedly stepped up attempts to trade for Crisp.

Given the Twins' history of not signing free agents to big deals, trades seem more likely.

"There are bargaining chips," Cuddyer said, "whether it's Johan or the younger guys on the staff."

The Twins selected center fielder Denard Span in the first round of the 2002 draft with the idea that he would be groomed as an eventual replacement for Hunter, but Span isn't ready for the majors.

Smith said Thursday his "Plan B" will be implemented a little sooner than he planned.

"We are going to continue to do anything we can to field a competitive club and, unfortunately, [Hunter leaving] is part of the game," Smith said. "We have been down this road in the past. It's a sad day when you lose a good player and a good person.

"We will continue to put a winning and a competitive Minnesota Twins team on the field."

However, center field is only one problem area for the Twins. There's no reliable third baseman. Craig Monroe, who arrived in a trade last week, might be allowed to become a free agent if he doesn't agree to contract for less than the $4.775 million he made last season. Until then, there's no proven production at designated hitter.

"There's probably a good three holes that need to be filled up and there's less than three months until pitchers and catchers report," Nathan said. "I hope we can get something going and get some guys over here and keep us in contention.

"I'm looking at the other clubs in the division and what they are doing and the lineups they are putting out there. It's a situation where it's tough to compete [needing three positions filled]."

Nathan and Cuddyer also tried, unsuccessfully, to hammer out multiyear deals before the 2007 season. Nathan said Thursday there has been minor contact but no real talks with his agent, while Cuddyer said there has been no contact with his.

Nathan's situation is more pressing because he's a free agent after the season. At $6 million, Nathan is a steal -- Mariano Rivera re-signed with the Yankees this week for $45 million over three years -- and though Nathan likes the area and coaching staff, he won't be motivated to re-sign if the Twins don't add more talent.

"I think it's something every player wants to have a chance to go to Opening Day and know you have a chance to win and play in October," Nathan said. "If not, it will be a little harder [to stay]."

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Detroit «00100002X340
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