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 MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -Johan Santana's star became the latest to go dark in Minnesota.
The departure of baseball's most dominant pitcher, in a deal agreed to with the New York Mets for four prospects, was hardly surprising.
When it finally happened on Tuesday, however, the hole at the top of the Twins rotation looked big. Scott Baker and Boof Bonser, who have 48 major league starts apiece, are the most experienced candidates for Santana's rotation spot.
``Joe Mauer's job, and my job, just got a lot tougher,'' backup catcher Mike Redmond said. ``We're going to have to work a lot harder to help these guys out the best we can.''
The reality of losing the 28-year-old ace and two-time Cy Young Award winner was never going to be easy to take, especially during an offseason when popular center fielder Torii Hunter left as a free agent following the two best seasons of his career. Lately, Minnesota has had quite a run of high-profile pro athletes moving to other markets, with Kevin Garnett and Randy Moss standing out the most.
``We're going to miss Johan Santana not only for the player that he is, but for the presence he is in the clubhouse,'' Redmond said. ``I know the effect he had in Minnesota on the fans and what he did for the Twins organization. He's going to be truly missed, but on the other hand we're going to move on. We've been preparing for this, and we're glad it's done now. It would've been tough to go to spring training with that still hanging out there, for him and for everybody else.''
The Twins have typically been tight with their money, but they've always kept the players they wanted until this winter. Hunter and Santana would unquestionably have been in the future plans had their contract demands not gone beyond what the team was willing to give. Minnesota offered Santana an $80 million, four-year extension of his current contract that will pay him $13.25 million in 2008.
Even though the Twins committed more than $100 million last week in new contracts for first baseman Justin Morneau and right fielder Michael Cuddyer, and have Mauer under contract through 2010, the absences of Hunter and Santana will be impossible to ignore for the next few years.
Team officials weren't talking on Tuesday, but left-behind teammates expressed the same bittersweetness that Redmond did. Nobody wanted Santana to go, but everybody knew it was coming.
``I guess I was just preparing to go forward without him,'' said new third baseman Mike Lamb, who signed with the team last month. ``It's unfortunate. I would've loved to play with him. He's one of the best pitchers in the game. It definitely hurts, but the Twins are going to be competitive night in and night out. You're getting a lot for him, and with the young starters that we have the future is very bright.''
That's up for debate, whether the Twins truly are getting a lot for him. Time will tell, but they might have overplayed their hand and waited too long for the best deal. General manager Bill Smith was lauded for the November trade that brought outfielder Delmon Young, but he's only been in charge for four months.
Coming from the Mets, who must first agree with Santana on a new contract and approve his health with a physical exam, are four well-regarded minor leaguers: right-handed pitchers Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber, plus outfielder Carlos Gomez.
Baseball America ranked all of them among the Mets organization's top seven prospects, but missing from the package was the No. 1 player on the magazine's list, outfielder Fernando Martinez. Gomez is a fleet-footed, defensive standout, but he won't be able to replace Hunter's offense right now if he were to win the center field job over Jason Pridie and Denard Span.
The two other teams Minnesota negotiated with, the Red Sox and Yankees, centered their offers around players who would've been more ready for the majors.
Boston's Jon Lester and New York's Philip Hughes could have been at or near the top of Minnesota's rotation this year, but it's unrealistic to count on the 25-year-old Humber for that after going 11-9 with a 4.27 ERA for Triple-A New Orleans last season.
Francisco Liriano was an All-Star in 2006 before his elbow injury, and his return will be a huge help. Coming off reconstructive surgery, however, he might not be immediately able to lead the way. With Carlos Silva also leaving through free agency this winter, ready-or-not young pitchers like Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey will certainly be closely examined for spots this spring.
So, the Twins will report for spring training next month with a potentially loaded lineup, as Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer eagerly welcome Young into the heart of the order. But the starting pitching will be rife with questions, a story line sure to follow the team all season.
``We'll adjust, obviously,'' Redmond said. ``It's a tremendous opportunity for some of our young guys to go out and establish themselves as front-line pitchers.''

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