MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -The sign of the start of free agency was literally hauled into Twins general manager Bill Smith's office on Tuesday morning: a huge white board, stretching from floor to ceiling with room for all the names soon to be on the open market.
That includes center fielder Torii Hunter, who is two weeks away from a lucrative new contract befitting a two-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner.
Though they must wait for other teams to first make their offers, the Twins are still stating their desire to re-sign Hunter - as well as starting pitcher Carlos Silva - despite the financial difficulty.
``We would love to sign them and have them stay as Twins. They've earned this right. There's nothing you can begrudge them for pursuing,'' Smith said.
Hunter turned down a three-year, $45 million deal in August and has since told the Twins he wouldn't negotiate until after gauging his value from other teams. On Tuesday, while traveling to pick up his sons from football practice in suburban Dallas, he offered a fitting metaphor for his desire to participate in the process of free agency for the first time.
``I ran all the way to the 1-yard line, and you expect me to fumble right now?'' Hunter said. ``I'm just trying to figure out what play to call.''
He pondered the situation for a second.
``I think I'll hand it off to Adrian Peterson,'' Hunter said, laughing. ``That's a guarantee.''
The 32-year-old Hunter is seeking at least a five-year contract. Before the season ended, he tried to diminish concerns about doling out so much guaranteed money for a player who will be in his late 30s when the deal ends.
``I feel like I can run better than some 22-year-old guys,'' Hunter said then. ``Trust me. I'm going to be like this the rest of my life. I've been like this since I was 17 years old. I'll be like this when I'm 40.''
Though they slumped to a 79-83 record and missed the postseason for only the second time since 2001, the Twins have plenty of other important players to pay, too, like ace left-hander Johan Santana - who will enter the final year of his contract.
This is an obvious predicament for Smith, who likely will be reluctant to designate such a significant percentage of the payroll to one player - as valuable as Hunter is.
Hunter said, however, that the Twins are still in the, uh, hunt.
``Yeah, just like everybody else,'' he said. ``Everybody else has a chance, too.''
The Twins emerged from their organizational meetings two weeks ago with contingency plans for replacing Hunter, if he departs.
``We'll look inside, outside,'' Smith said. ``We'll consider trades. We'll consider free agents. We'll consider promotion from within and see if we can come up with the best options.''
The good news for the Twins is that they're expecting to gain at least one All-Star-caliber player for next season - without busting their budget.
Starting pitcher Francisco Liriano is nearly done with his yearlong rehabilitation program following reconstructive elbow surgery. He has three more bullpen sessions scheduled over the next nine days, throwing up to 80 pitches by the end. Because he's had no setbacks and resisted temptation to push too hard and too fast, the Twins are ``cautiously'' counting on him for the start of spring training.
``We're really pleased with his effort and looking forward to the future,'' Smith said.

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