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12/11/08 3:28 PM EST

Twins, Punto agree on two-year deal

Veteran expected to take over as starting shortstop in '09

LAS VEGAS -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said earlier this week that his team's top priority was to re-sign infielder Nick Punto. And before the Twins left the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, they accomplished that goal.

The Twins announced Thursday that they had re-signed Punto to a two-year, $8.5 million contract with a club option for 2011. The two sides finalized the deal late on Wednesday night at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino.

Punto will make $4 million in each of the next two seasons, and the option is worth $5 million for 2011, with a $500,000 buyout.

The Twins weren't the only team that was pursuing Punto at these Winter Meetings. Punto and his agent, Jeff Caulfield, came to Las Vegas for the week and met with three or four teams who had emerged as serious options.

But Punto said that it was his love of the Twins organization and belief that the ballclub has the chance to contend for a championship that made him decide to stay.

"That's one of the places where you want to win a world championship, not only for yourself and your teammates, but for the fans," Punto said. "I feel like we got really close last year and I would be lying if I said I didn't have a sour taste in my mouth from that last game in Chicago. Now we're just looking forward to the '09 season."

The Phillies, Yankees, Mets and Diamondbacks were among the teams reportedly interested in Punto. Twins general manager Bill Smith said that his team understood Punto's need to explore all of his options, but they remained intent on bringing him back to Minnesota.

"I think it was important for them to go see what the market was going to bear," Smith said. "But in the end, I think Nick wanted to stay with the Twins. He's a popular player among the fans, he's a popular player among his teammates and you know he's a popular player among the coaching staff. So we were able to close this thing out late last night."

Punto, 31, batted .284 with 19 doubles and 28 RBIs in 99 games with the Twins last season while seeing time at second base, shortstop and third base.

Earlier this week, Gardenhire said that, if Punto returned, he would be the starting shortstop for the Twins in 2009. Knowing that he's got a lock on the job heading into Spring Training was something that also made Punto's decision a little easier.

"It's where I love to play," Punto said. "That's the position I've played for years and where I feel most comfortable. ... And to have the manager have your back and to speak out like that is very comforting. I look forward to taking on that role and running with it."

Heading into the Winter Meetings, a goal of the Twins was to upgrade their infield offensively. Signing Punto gives the team a stellar defensive option at shortstop, but it now appears that the Twins will turn their focus to trying to add a power bat at the hot corner.

Although the Twins spent the week talking with various teams about options for third base, Smith said that the team is content to go into Spring Training with Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris as a platoon at the spot.

"With signing Nick, it gives us pretty much the team we left September with, other than Dennys Reyes at this point," Smith said. "We like that team -- it's young, it's athletic, it's energetic. There are a lot of positives about that club. Again, you always want to try to make it better, but we like the group we have."

With free agent Casey Blake out of the picture after he signed with the Dodgers this week, the Twins' attempts to upgrade at third base will most likely come via a trade. Among the names that have been thrown out this week as being of interest to the Twins are Garrett Atkins of the Rockies, Adrian Beltre of the Mariners, Ty Wigginton of the Astros and Mark DeRosa of the Cubs.

The Twins had conversations with many other clubs throughout the week, although they won't comment on specific teams or players they might have involved. But while talks have taken place, Smith said that they leave the Meetings having yet to find a match that doesn't involve the team giving up too much of its own talent.

"There is nothing imminent," Smith said. "So far, it's just a lot of discussion that will go further as we get deeper into the winter."

Deals done: The Twins capped off the week by re-signing Punto

Rule 5 activity: The Twins selected right-handed pitcher Jason Jones from the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate.

Goals accomplished: Inking Punto to a two-year deal fills one of the two open spots on the left side of the infield for the Twins. It also ensured that the club will be solid defensively up the middle once again in '09.

Unfinished business: The Twins still have to find a way to add a power bat to the lineup, optimally at third base. The team also has yet to find another arm to add to the bullpen, although their Rule 5 pickup Jones could battle for the spot.

GM's bottom line: "It was a productive week. It has certainly been busy. Whenever we get a chance to get a lot of our key people together, there is a lot of information exchanged, a lot of thought. Some of the ideas are only out there for a few seconds before saying, 'No, we don't want to do that.' And others we'll continue to move on and act on and expand and see if we can find a fit. Sometimes something happens now, sometimes it's in January, and sometimes it's in Spring Training." -- Smith

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.