The Johan Santana trade discussions have reached a quiet but crucial stage.

The Twins know what they can get. And they realize none of the packages will appease their fans, who might never forgive them for trading the two-time Cy Young Award winner.

Still, Twins officials privately say they think Santana will be traded before spring training opens next month.

For now, the Twins and the three most interested Santana suitors -- the Mets, Yankees and Red Sox -- are regrouping, trying to decide how far beyond their comfort zones they will go to close this deal. The end result might leave some Twins fans gasping for breath.

It's possible the Twins will trade Santana without landing one player who is universally recognized as a big help in 2008.

Lately, the Twins have seemed most intrigued with the Mets' offer.

The Mets are offering some combination of the following five players: Carlos Gomez, Fernando Martinez, Deolis Guerra, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey.

Gomez, 22, could step in immediately as the Twins' starting center fielder, but some scouts are skeptical about his bat.

The Twins are much higher on Martinez, 19, and Guerra, 18, even though they realize both might be in the minors until 2010.

As for Humber and Mulvey, neither projects as better than a No. 4 starter.

But if the Red Sox and Yankees don't improve their offers -- and the Twins have reason to believe they won't -- Santana could wind up with the Mets.

The Twins would make that deal and step into a public relations nightmare.

The media isn't kind at those moments. Just look at Twins history.

When they traded Chuck Knoblauch to the Yankees in February 1998, then-General Manager Terry Ryan was ripped for not getting New York to surrender prospects Ricky Ledee, Ramiro Mendoza and Luis de los Santos.

The Twins settled for Eric Milton, Cristian Guzman, Brian Buchanan and Danny Mota. None was expected to reach the big leagues that first season, but Milton did, joining the starting rotation. Guzman took over at shortstop in 1999.

The headline writers had a field day. A sampling:

"Twins' Ryan booted this one."

"Stealing second."

"Deal reveals Minny madness."

Mendoza remained a key reliever and occasional starter for the Yankees. But de los Santos went on to appear in only three big-league games.

Ledee was the quintessential five-tool prospect. The common criticism went, "How could the Twins trade a four-time All-Star and not get Ledee?"

Well, Ledee never matched the hype. He retired last season after years of failing to impress as a big-league regular.

Milton and Guzman started the 1997 season at Class A. When they joined the Twins the following year, most people said, who?

Both became All-Stars.

Knoblauch played in four World Series for the Yankees, but the trade paid huge dividends for the Twins.

Minnesota eventually traded Milton to Philadelphia for Carlos Silva and Nick Punto, and Buchanan got traded to San Diego for another little-known minor leaguer named Jason Bartlett.

If the Twins don't get Phil Hughes or Jacoby Ellsbury for Santana, many will look at the holes they have left for 2008 and judge the trade as a failure. But maybe Hughes and Ellsbury will never match the hype.

Time will be the true judge.

In 2003, some thought the Twins were fleeced when they sent A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano.

That day, Giants GM Brian Sabean said, "It's not often that you can send a reliever and two unproven prospects for a front-line, lefthanded-hitting All-Star catcher."

Yeah, silly Twins.

Joe Christensen •