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Early Santana trade doesn’t make sense for Twins

Before anybody freaks out over the Twins trading Johan Santana this winter, relax. It’s unlikely to happen, and not just because Santana’s contract has a no-trade clause. Here’s why:
The Twins still have to sell tickets for 2008.

Before anybody freaks out over the Twins trading Johan Santana this winter, relax. It’s unlikely to happen, and not just because Santana’s contract has a no-trade clause. Here’s why:

The Twins still have to sell tickets for 2008. Twins fans may be among the most loyal and supportive in baseball, but they’re not gullible (most of them anyway), and they’re not stupid. Without Santana, and especially without Torii Hunter, the Twins have almost no chance of competing with Cleveland, Detroit or even the White Sox in the American League Central. And everybody knows it.

But with Santana, the promise of a healthy Francisco Liriano and the addition of somebody better than Craig Monroe who can actually hit, the Twins could promote themselves as contenders without being laughed out of the metro.

Remember: Without a lucrative television or radio deal, the Twins rely heavily on ticket revenues to fund operations. That’s why the Twins never publicly admitted giving up on the season last July at the trade deadline, despite dealing Luis Castillo to the Mets and later dumping veterans Jeff Cirillo and Ramon Ortiz. Say you’re done, and the turnstiles stop clicking. The Twins saved more than $3 million in salary and still drew the third-largest attendance in franchise history, a win-win for the guys in the back who count the money. (We mean you too, Jim Pohlad.)

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So the Twins aren’t about to do or say anything to jeopardize a single ticket sale. With a new stadium under construction, and the club responsible for any cost overruns, they can’t afford to.

One more thing to remember: Because of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, the Twins are scheduled to play only 24 of their 81 home games after the July 31 trade deadline, four fewer than last season. Three of those 24 games are against the Yankees, guaranteeing crowds of at least 30,000 even if Rocky, Bullwinkle and Natasha pitch. The Twins may take a small attendance hit by dealing Santana at the deadline — most people have bought advance tickets by then anyway — but it won’t be as crippling as doing it in December.

The Twins may yet be able to sign Santana, as insane as that sounds. If Santana gets hurt, or goes 15-13 again without his usual dominant strikeout and ERA numbers, teams may think twice before offering him Barry Zito money ($126 million over seven years) or even Carlos Zambrano’s ($91.5 million for five years). And if Santana is true to his word — that he’d like to stay, but only if the Twins commit to winning a World Series instead of pretending to — it makes sense to squeeze every inning out of him to try and make that happen.

Even if Santana vetoes a trade, or the Twins keep him all season, they’ll still get two first-round draft picks if he departs as a Type A free agent. That’s gold for a team with a history of building through its farm system. And they’ll probably get two more picks for Joe Nathan, who will command at least $10 million a season on the open market next winter, much more than the Twins are willing to pay.


Hunter set to catch offers
Meanwhile, Torii Hunter’s agent, Larry Reynolds, can finally field offers from teams interested in Hunter’s services. You know the parameters: The Twins offered three years at $45 million, but Hunter wants at least five years guaranteed.

The Twins are sitting back hoping the market doesn’t explode for Hunter. They may be right. Though one major-league scout who saw Hunter and Andruw Jones this season considers Hunter the more attractive free agent, he called the Twins offer “competitive” and questions whether any team will offer Hunter more than $15 million a season. (Scouts usually love to talk but don’t like to be quoted by name for fear of getting fired.)

“I could see somebody doing four years for $55 million,” the scout said. “But in today’s market, he’s a $12 million player to me, because his offense just isn’t that great. To the Twins, he’s worth much more because he’s the face of the franchise.

“Although he’s not a great hitter, he’s a good hitter, and he gives you so much in the clubhouse. Andruw is kind of in his own world, while Torii is much more of a team guy. I think Torii’s intangibles are off-the-charts good. And he’s a winning player.”

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Yankees may sit this one out
Some people expect the Yankees to bid for Hunter, but I have my doubts.

They’ve committed $42 million next year to outfielders Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon, and another $41 million to Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi. Jorge Posada just agreed to a four-year, $52.4 million deal, and they’re still talking to Mariano Rivera. They can’t pay everybody $15 million and keep the payroll under $200 million, a George Steinbrenner mandate. And in centerfielder Melky Cabrera, they’ve got a fleet young defender who isn’t arbitration eligible and makes peanuts, relatively speaking ($432,400, which will bump up when he’s renewed next spring).

Plus, by now somebody in the Yankee hierarchy has noticed Hunter’s .190 career average at Yankee Stadium (20-for-105). The last player the Yankees signed with stadium numbers that bad was Kenny Rogers, who flopped before reviving his career in other places, including Minnesota.

The White Sox make more sense as a Hunter destination, provided they can dump somebody (Jon Garland?) to free up payroll. Ozzie Guillen loves Hunter, and general manager Ken Williams watched Hunter bust his butt for an out-of-the-race team on Chicago’s last road trip to the Metrodome.

If Hunter does leave, run for the hills if you hear the Twins are interested in free agent Brady Clark, late of the Padres, or Milwaukee’s Bill Hall. Clark, a poor defender subbing for injured Gold Glover Mike Cameron, misplayed two balls into triples in the sixth inning of their wild-card playoff loss at Colorado. After that, the Pods couldn’t release him fast enough. And Hall, a serviceable hitter and a clubhouse leader with an affordable contract (his four-year, $24 million deal runs through 2010), committed nine errors last season, as many as Hunter had over his last three seasons.