Bill Smith, the Twins' new general manager, surprised many people when he failed to trade pitching ace Johan Santana during baseball's annual meetings in December.

The explanation offered by some people who closely monitor the Twins was that Smith was paranoid about possibly making a bad trade with the best pitcher this franchise had employed since the young version of Bert Blyleven.

As the old truism goes, it's never paranoia if it turns out to be true, and that's what happened to Smith this week when he was forced to trade Santana for a position player with a chance to be a righthanded version of Corey Patterson, and three righthanded pitchers who are suspects, at best.

The folks who should have felt like idiots Tuesday were John Henry, Theo Epstein, Hank Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman, because they allowed their Red Sox and their Yankees to sit on the sideline as the Mets stole Santana.

The Red Sox could have surrounded center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury with some nobodies, and the Yankees could have done the same with pitcher Phil Hughes, and beat out the Mets for Santana.

The Red Sox chose to hoard Ellsbury, a lefthanded hitter who looked good for a month, rather than make themselves odds-on favorites to repeat as World Series champions.

The Yankees chose to hoard Hughes, a righthanded control pitcher who can throw hard enough to break a pane of glass, rather than put themselves back in position to overtake the Red Sox in the East Division and the American League.

There's reason to believe all those rumors flying out of Nashville, that had the Twins getting large packages of talent from the Red Sox and the Yankees, were inaccurate.

One thing for sure: No matter what the Twins had on the table seven weeks earlier, it was better than the deal they were required to make in a panic on Tuesday.

Terry Ryan had one gigantic flaw as a general manager -- patience -- and it was never more evident than last March. He balked at the demands made by Justin Morneau's agent for a long-term contract extension. That wound up costing 10s of extra millions when Morneau was signed last week.

He also failed to heed Santana's warning that spring training was the time to try to sign him to an extension. The deal the Twins offered Santana after the season -- four additional years at $80 million -- would have gotten it done in March.

Smith showed a much-appreciated impulsive streak with his first deal: surrendering Matt Garza, a top young pitcher, and starting shortstop Jason Bartlett to add outfielder Delmon Young's bat to the lineup.

Unfortunately, Smith put his hair trigger aside in Nashville.

There was a chubby old Minneapolis sportswriter who was stealing radio money for several weeks by repeating the same theme:

"The greatest fear for the Twins should be that Santana wakes up one of these next mornings and says, 'No mas. I'm going to pitch for the Twins this season and let the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Mets fight for me as a free agent next winter.'"

Santana has a big house in the Fort Myers, Fla., area, springtime home of the Twins and Red Sox. If he wasn't going to be traded to Boston, he wanted to make plans for spring training with one of the New York clubs.

It's beyond folly for this now to be offered as an excuse: that Peter Greenberg, Santana's agent, put the Twins up against it by slapping them with a Tuesday deadline.

Frankly, I'm surprised Santana and Greenberg stuck with the fiddlin' Twins as long as they did.

The worst thing about this trade isn't the huge uncertainty about all three pitchers, but this:

Twins people are being reluctant to declare (on background, not officially) that Carlos Gomez will be the Opening Day center fielder. He's 22, he's played in the big leagues, he's the key to the trade, the Twins don't have another center fielder worth mentioning, and Gomez isn't a cinch to be the regular?

If he's not in center on March 31, and on merit, then the Twins waited seven weeks to make the worst deal possible.

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. •