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Here Today ...

... but gone after '08? It's starting to look that way for Johan Santana, who has broken off contract talks with the Twins

THE TWINS may be fighting a losing battle in their efforts to extend Johan Santana's four-year, $40 million contract, which expires at the end of next season. A league source told SI that Minnesota recently offered to add two years to the deal, at around $18 million per season, plus a club option for 2011. That offer, however, falls well short of the seven-year, $126 million figure that Barry Zito received from the Giants this winter and virtually assures that Santana, the Koufax of his generation, will be the hottest free agent in the class of '08. Having set this past Opening Day as his deadline for securing a new deal, Santana has told the Twins that he won't negotiate again until he hits the open market—when, it should be added, he will only be 29.

The more immediate concern to the Twins, though, is the rest of their starting five, which features one promising youngster (Boof Bonser) and three veteran journeymen (Carlos Silva, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson). "Every year you have question marks," says G.M. Terry Ryan. "Last year it was the position players, especially on the left side of the infield. This year it's the rotation."

As he did last season, when he patched holes in the lineup with such retreads as Tony Batista and Rondell White, Ryan has invited scrutiny by choosing veteran mediocrity over a promising cast of youngsters that includes hard-throwing righty Matt Garza. But there are reasons to give Ryan, who has a well-earned reputation as a player-development mastermind, the benefit of the doubt.

1) For a budget-conscious franchise like the Twins, service time is a vital consideration. Identifying when a prospect is ready to make a valuable contribution in the majors can mean another productive season before the player hits free agency. The extra seasoning for Garza and others could prove beneficial for everyone.

2) A $71 million payroll, not high for a franchise with a largely taxpayer-funded new stadium opening in 2010, limits Ryan's choices. It's not as if Ryan wasn't interested in higher-caliber starters during the off-season. The front office eyed, among others, Gil Meche but backed off when the market got out of hand. "I think it's important to know who you are," says Ryan, who's never complained about his budgets. "You know what the resources are. You know what the revenues are."

3) It's a very small sample, but the Twins got impressive outings last week from Ortiz and Bonser (the underrated third piece of the Heist of the Decade that also brought Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano from San Francisco for A.J. Pierzynski). Both pitched wonderfully in wins over the Orioles, and Silva pitched solidly in a loss to the White Sox. With the game's deepest bullpen (a 2.91 ERA in '06, best in baseball), the starters usually only need to get into the sixth to have a chance.

4) The Twins still have Santana, who pitched seven innings of one-hit ball against the White Sox on Sunday. If he goes 18--6 (his average record the past three seasons), he'll have a four-year mark of 73--25, very close to Pedro Martinez's 77--25 from 1997 through 2000. Despite the recent setback in negotiations, the Twins aren't abandoning hope that they can get a deal done with their ace.

And why not? Surprising results are their trademark.


Dukes off to A Majestic Start

A scout sizes up Devil Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes, who hit homers in his first two big league games, against the Yankees:

"He's always been a terrific athlete with great bat speed and a great arm. (He was clocked throwing 93--95 mph off the mound in high school.) The most underestimated thing about him, right from high school through the minors, is his tremendous instincts. But the key is how he'll handle the long grind and riding the bench once Rocco Baldelli returns [to the outfield]."

ONLY AT SI.COM Catch Jon Heyman's Daily Scoop.

Touching'em All

There has been talk about Ichiro (right) going to Boston next season as a free agent, but a league source says that his name never came up in trade talks between the Mariners and the Red Sox this winter, even when Manny Ramirez's name was thrown into the mix. One member of the Boston organization, citing the presence of Daisuke Matsuzaka, doubted whether Ichiro would relish playing "second fiddle" to his countryman.... John Smoltz, who's eligible to be a free agent after this season, told friends he was disenchanted last year by what he perceived as clubhouse acceptance of the Braves' third-place finish in the NL East, not to mention Atlanta's decision to wait until the last moment to pick up his $8 million option.... The Tigers look like a team without holes, but their one big worry concerns centerfielder Curtis Granderson. "We don't have too much depth [behind him]," says manager Jim Leyland.... When the Devil Rays sent Jorge Cantu down to the minors at the end of spring training, the second baseman issued a trade demand that had to make the front office chuckle. The team had already been trying hard to deal Cantu, but interest was as limited as his range.



LAST PITCH The Twins offered Santana $18 million per—for just two more years.