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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Winter Meetings generally have been a time during which the Twins sit back and watch as other teams are the focus of significant trade talks.
Not this year.
New Twins general manager Bill Smith is expected to be one of the most sought after men at next week's Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., and it all has to do with the availability of one ace pitcher, Johan Santana.
Since the offseason began, there has been talk that the team would listen to offers for Santana, who is set to be a free agent after the 2008 season. Those trade rumors intensified last week when sources close to the negotiations revealed the Twins and the pitcher are very far apart in their current discussions regarding a contract extension.
Santana is looking for a long-term deal -- around six years and upwards of at least $126 million. That's a substantial difference from the four-year, $80 million extension offer the Twins reportedly made.
Indications are that due to the divide between the two sides, Santana has given his OK for the team to start pursuing trade options. And the buzz of Santana's availability has been the talk of baseball ever since.
Smith stated earlier this offseason that the team's priority was to re-sign the pitcher, and when asked about the recent reports regarding Santana, the GM chose not to address them.
"We're not commenting on any player negotiations or trade rumors or contract rumors," Smith said. "It's just not beneficial to the player or the club."
While the Twins could wait and hold onto Santana for one more season, the team appears willing to at least see what it could get in return for its dominant left-hander.
The organization just watched one star player leave with only a first-round Drat pick to show for it when Torii Hunter agreed to a five-year, $90 million deal with the Angels on Thanksgiving. And the Twins don't appear willing to let that happen again.
With at least three significant positions to fill and the team's past history of not signing free agents to big deals, the Twins could use their ace to acquire the types of players needed to round out their roster. That's why the team is expected to be in heavy trade talks all week at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville.
Among the holes that currently exist for the club is the one left in center field by Hunter's departure. The plan always had been for the club's 2002 first-round pick, Denard Span, to take over for Hunter when his contract was finished. But with Span not yet ready for the role, the club will have to look elsewhere.
Two of the market's remaining top free agents are center fielders -- Andruw Jones and Aaron Rowand -- but both appear to be out of the club's price range. Other options could include veteran guys like Kenny Lofton or Darin Erstad.
Securing a solution through a trade appears more likely, for which Santana could be the key asset. Most of the teams which appear capable of affording the ace have strong center-field options: the Yankees' Melky Cabrera, the Dodgers' Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, the Mets' Carlos Gomez, the Angels' Reggie Willits and Coco Crisp of the Red Sox.
Trading away a pitcher of Santana's caliber is not an easy task, especially for a rookie GM. But Smith showed this past week he isn't afraid of taking risks. He gave up top pitching prospect Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett for last season's American League Rookie of the Year runner-up, outfielder Delmon Young, as part of a six-player trade with the Rays.
"One of our main objectives has been to add some offense to this club," Smith said. "We've taken some steps already, and we're going to try to continue to do that."
But while a trade involving Santana likely will garner at least one star position player or prospect, it won't be enough to fill all the club's needs. The addition of a bat like Young's will help make up for the loss of Hunter offensively, but the Twins are seeking stronger bats for their other holes as well. In addition to the opening in center field, the Twins need reliable solutions at both third base and designated hitter. And the loss of Garza could mean the Twins are looking for additional pitching depth as well.
A Santana deal could provide the Twins with a significant return in talent, but it's not quite as easy as it sounds. Any potential trade must be approved by the pitcher, who possesses a full no-trade clause. It's likely Santana also would require an extension be agreed upon with his new team before the deal is complete. And some teams may balk at the idea of giving up too many players in a deal while also having to spend close to $150 million on the left-hander.
Santana may be the player attracting the most attention in Nashville, but the Twins are not without other bargaining chips.
There have been musings the team could shop closer Joe Nathan, who, like Santana, will be a free agent after the '08 season. Nathan's $6 million option for '08 is cheap by industry standards, but recently signed deals like Mariano Rivera's three-year, $45 million contract with the Yankees demonstrate that keeping Nathan also will prove to be very expensive.
Placing two of their elite pitchers on the trading block is just another sign that, unlike previous years, this year's gathering will be far from quiet for the Twins.
"You prepare every year for a lot of activity," Smith said of the Winter Meetings. "But you have to go in and make good deals for the organization. If you can do that, great. If you can't make a good deal for the organization, then you are better off to hold off."
Now is the time for other teams to see just how long the Twins might hold off when it comes to Santana.