MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -The Minnesota Twins just lost one popular and valuable player to free agency, and now they're staring hard at the possibility of trading another.
Johan Santana is for sale, and the trade talk has thrust the Twins into baseball's spotlight. With Torii Hunter gone, they're listening to offers for Santana and weighing the pros and cons of dealing one of the game's greatest pitchers.
``Our first choice is to sign him,'' general manager Bill Smith said carefully, after pausing to answer a question regarding the one year Santana has remaining on his current deal.
An extension of his stay in Minnesota has appeared increasingly unrealistic since prices for pitchers escalated around this time last year.
Though the Twins plan to move to a new ballpark in 2010, they won't receive that revenue boost until then. With Santana's value soaring and their middle-of-the-pack payroll not about to spike significantly, a new contract for the two-time Cy Young Award winner could account for one-fourth of the money Minnesota spends on player salaries.
``We're going to be focused on making smart baseball decisions,'' team president Dave St. Peter said Tuesday. ``That's the way we have always operated. It's the way the Pohlads expect us to operate, and we have no issues with that.''
Owner Carl Pohlad has long been criticized both locally and nationally for not using more of his banking fortune on the roster, and Twins loyalists have been complaining about losing Hunter and perhaps more stars while county sales taxes are being collected for the new ballpark.
St. Peter acknowledged the frustration fans are feeling, but he defended the team's philosophy of not tying up future payrolls with heavily back-loaded deals.
``I don't think the Torii Hunter decision would've worked out any differently in a new building,'' he said. ``It still comes down to making smart baseball decisions.''
The Twins offered the 32-year-old center fielder a $45 million, three-year contract, but Hunter got a $90 million, five-year deal from the Los Angeles Angels, an agreement scheduled to be finalized Wednesday. For Minnesota, that's a budget buster, and Santana's expected asking price probably will be, too.
His agent, Peter Greenberg, has been silent on the issue this year. In an e-mail on Tuesday, he declined to comment specifically on the situation.
``Just waiting and seeing what will happen,'' Greenberg said.
Last January, he warned that the Twins would have to ``do something soon'' if they wanted to retain Santana, who will make $13.25 million this season. With free agency that much closer for him, the conceivability of an extension has clearly decreased. The $126 million, seven-year deal that fellow left-hander Barry Zito was given by the San Francisco Giants last season set a new standard, and indications are that Santana will command much more than that.
The Twins have never denied the possibility that they're better off trading Santana, who turns 29 in March, and they've got a lot of work to do on an offense that ranked 25th in the majors with 718 runs scored last year.
Though Santana can veto a trade to any team due to a clause in his current contract, and his suitor must be confident it can sign him to a new deal before coughing up top prospects or major-league talent, the thin free-agent market makes him an attractive target. The Twins, at least, could count on a better return from a Santana trade this year than the two compensatory draft picks they would receive if he leaves as a free agent after next season.
St. Peter said Santana ``is a prominent part of our season-ticket renewal'' package but declined to be specific about what that will look like.
``He's part of that mix, and he's going to continue to be as long as he's here,'' St. Peter said. ``As long as he's under contract with the Twins, he will continue to be a major part of our marketing plan.''
Baseball's winter meetings are next week, and Smith's hotel suite is sure to be a busy place.
The natural assumption is that he'll have to resolve Santana's situation one way or another over the next month, but he downplayed any urgency by pointing to Oakland's recent decisions.
The A's, with spending that mirrors the Twins, made the playoffs five times in a seven-year span with many similar predicaments. Before the 2005 season, Oakland traded aces Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder before they were due big raises and received a bounty of prospects. But in 2006, they kept Zito and went to the AL championship series before ultimately letting him leave.
``The answer to the question, 'Can you do it?''' Smith said. ``Absolutely you can.''

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