Twins won't make same mistake with Santana

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2007 - 11:59 PM

With Torii Hunter already gone, the Twins appear determined not to let their ace walk away as well -- meaning a trade could be in order.

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Johan Santana can become a free agent after next season.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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There were lessons to be learned for the Twins this week, as center fielder Torii Hunter left them to sign his $90 million deal with the Angels.

Lessons about being proactive. Lessons about dealing with star players long before free agency.

Unfortunately, with Johan Santana, it's already too late.

Santana can become a free agent after next season, and the Twins seem determined not to let the same thing happen with him.

That doesn't mean they will keep Santana. They are seriously considering trading their ace lefthander.

According to people familiar with the talks, Santana actually gave the Twins his blessing to begin exploring trade options after recent negotiations proved how difficult it will be to reach an agreement.

New details emerged Friday, as a person close to the discussions said the Twins' five-year, $93 million offer was actually the equivalent of a four-year, $80 million extension.

The team wanted to negate the final year of Santana's current deal, which will pay him $13.25 million this season, and begin the new five-year contract.

The Star Tribune reported this week that Santana countered by asking for $126 million, but the person close to the talks said Santana actually countered with a request for a six-year extension.

He didn't request a dollar amount, but both sides realized they were two years and upward of $40 million apart.

Santana approved the team's trade attempts, knowing he will have the final say because of his complete no-trade clause.

In coming days, the Twins are expected to receive proposals from the Mets, Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers and possibly other teams, as the industry weighs the heavy price of landing the two-time Cy Young Award winner.

The Twins want at least three premium young players for Santana, and they hope to address their gaping holes at third base or center field.

That could prove tricky, however, as any team that trades for Santana would likely need to sign him to a new deal, with some predicting he will ask for $25 million per year.

That price tag might make the Twins shudder, but few thought Hunter's new salary could reach $18 million per year.

Things could have been different if the Twins had taken a different approach last winter, when Hunter and Santana were both clamoring for contract extensions.

People familiar with the players' thinking say the center fielder would have agreed to a five-year, $65 million contract last offseason. That's quite a bargain compared to what the Angels just gave him.

But the Twins chose to pick up Hunter's $12 million option and let him walk the plank toward free agency.

Meanwhile last winter, Santana was looking for a five-year, $100 million extension. He was under contract for two more years, so the total package would have been almost identical to the seven-year, $126 million deal Barry Zito signed with the Giants.

Now, the Twins could try offering that same $100 million extension and Santana wouldn't take it.

The closer players get to free agency, the less risk they have of getting injured and spoiling their chances at a big fortune. Insiders say Hunter was the one keeping the Twins at arm's length during the season, when the team was finally ready to negotiate.

This week, Hunter said the Twins are at a pivotal crossroads with Santana.

"Either you step up this offseason," he said, "or Johan might be out."

The Twins argue that they were proactive with both Hunter and Santana earlier in their careers.

They gave Santana his current four-year, $40 million contract after he won the Cy Young in 2004.

And Hunter was coming off his 2002 All-Star season when the Twins signed him to a four-year deal with an option for 2007. When they picked up that option, it brought the total value of the contract to $44 million.

"I don't have any regrets [with Hunter] because we made him a huge offer five years ago," Twins General Manager Bill Smith said. "He had a tremendous year in '06. We picked up the option. I think everybody got out of that deal what they anticipated."

One of the Twins' quiet strengths is their ability to avoid bad contracts. Outside of Joe Mays, they have signed few players for deals that wasted several million dollars.

But the Hunter saga proved it's sometimes wise to take the gamble. It's too late for the Twins with Santana, but they can apply those lessons with Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer.

Joe Christensen • jchristensen@startribune.com

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