Oh, how things change. By the end of the 2006 season, the Twins' roster was chock full of star power. There was a Major League batting champion in Joe Mauer. An American League MVP in Justin Morneau. A Rookie of the Year candidate in Francisco Liriano. An elite closer in Joe Nathan. And, most importantly, a two-time Cy Young Award winner in Johan Santana.
Of course, the problem with boasting this many big-name players is that they all eventually command a large salary to coincide with their super-star status. It presents an especially vexing dilemma for a small-market team like the Twins, whose budget does not enable them to cut mega-deals with numerous players. With the free-agent market going crazy this off-season, there really couldn't be a worse time for the Twins' roster to be brimming with rising stars who are just hitting their arbitration years. Hammering out multi-year deals that will keep players like Mauer and Morneau around will be difficult, yet doable. Accomplishing those tasks while keeping Santana around, however, is starting to look like an impossible proposition.
Santana, who has been baseball's best pitcher over the past three years, has two years left on the four year, $40 million contract he signed prior to the 2005 season. There was a time when it seemed like the Twins might be able to re-sign Santana near the conclusion of this deal and perhaps keep the dominant left-hander in a Twins' uniform for the entirety of his career; unfortunately, recent events might have put thoughts of such a plan out of reach.
I suppose I should say there is one particular recent event may have crushed these dreams, and that was the contract that Barry Zito signed with the San Francisco Giants near the end of December. Zito's deal is for seven years and it averages out to $18 million/year -- an absolutely absurd contract that puts an exclamation point on an off-season that has been full of outrageous deals for over-valued starting pitchers.
Zito is a very good pitcher with a relatively impressive track record, but he is not even close to being on the same level as Santana. Zito, 28, sports a 3.55 career ERA and is a three-time All Star. He also won a Cy Young Award in 2002. His strongest points are his endurance and durability -- he has pitched 200+ innings in each of the last six seasons. Santana, who currently holds a 3.20 career ERA, will be 29 when his contract expires and could well have three or four Cy Youngs sitting in his cabinet by that time. He has averaged 231 innings per season since becoming a full-time starter in 2004. In those three years, Santana has led the American League in ERA twice, wins once, and strikeouts three times. That's a résumé that makes Zito's look pretty wimpy, even if you ignore the fact that Zito has been a full-time starter for six years compared to Santana's three.
With all that in mind, it's frightening as a Twins fan to think about how much Santana could command as a free agent. If Zito is worth $18 million, how much does that make Santana worth? $25 million? More?
The sad fact is that Santana will likely be completely unaffordable for the Minnesota Twins once his current bargain contract is up. With a hometown discount and a payroll increase based on the approach of a new stadium, re-upping Santana might be possible, but it would cripple the team financially. And with that in mind, Terry Ryan may have to start thinking about the possibility of trading Johan within the next couple years.
Just typing out such a thought makes me sick. Santana is probably my favorite player -- a historically great pitcher without much of an ego. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, and it is a joy to watch him work each five days. Still, if it comes down to a choice between keeping him for an extra season/half-season and letting him walk away for nothing, or dealing him early for a wealth of near-ready prospects, the latter option makes a lot more sense.
ESPN.com writer Bob Klapisch created some waves among Twins fans a couple weeks ago when he made the following statement in an article he wrote:
"Of course, it's possible the Yankees' sudden accumulation of young, cheap talent that would be acquired in both the Johnson and Gary Sheffield deals is leading to a mega-swap with the Twins, who've undoubtedly calculated (and fainted at) the cost of keeping Johan Santana after he becomes a free agent in two years. Cashman's army of youngsters might be the escape the Twins would need, given that Barry Zito is now earning $18 million per year."The Yankees have always seemed like a natural eventual destination for Santana, what with their massive payroll and their perpetual need for great pitching to complement their monstrous offense. And while I don't think that any of the prospects the Yankees have acquired this off-season are good enough to pry away Santana (with the possible expection of the impressive yet highly injury-prone Humberto Sanchez), there are a few players in the New York's system that could be packaged in a reasonably fair deal.
The obvious name for those who follow baseball prospects is Philip Hughes. At 20 years old, Hughes found himself already in Double-A by the end of last season, where he went 10-3 with a 2.25 ERA and 0.91 WHIP over 116 innings, racking up 138 strikeouts while walking just 32. Hughes is one of the brightest prospects in baseball, and is so good the Yankees would no doubt be extremely hesitant to part with him, but it seems that his name would almost have to be involved in a deal for Santana.
Another player in the Yankees' system that would intrigue the Twins is Jose Tabata, an 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela who has hit .303/.379/.419 in a pair of seasons as a pro. Acquiring Tabata would give the Twins an extremely promising future player at a corner outfield spot, which would be nice with Jason Kubel's future uncertain and Cuddyer set to become expensive within the next few years.
One other particularly interesting name in the Yankees system is the young pitcher Dellin Betances. At 6'9" and 215 pounds, Betances is a unique prospect who has been tagged with the nickname "Baby Unit." Baseball America ranks Betances as the third-best prospect in the Yankees' system behind Hughes and Tabata, and there's a chance that the Twins could ask for him instead of Hughes as the potential ace that would have to be included in a Santana deal.
Additionally, there are a few young players already on the Yankees' major-league roster that would fit well with the Twins, including second baseman Robinson Cano and outfielder Melky Cabrera.
So at this point it appears that New York would be a logical destination for Santana if the Twins were to decide to trade him before the conclusion of his contract. The Yankees have the type of payroll that would allow them to sign Santana to a monster deal, and they have plenty of young talent to piece together an attractive offer to pry him away from the Twins. And while the thought of opening that new ballpark in 2010 without Santana as the team's ace is fairly depressing, the thought of having a rotation that potentially includes Hughes, Liriano and Matt Garza is awfully exciting.
There is no assurance that the Twins will trade Santana, and even if they do it would almost undoubtedly be at least a year away. Still, Klapisch's mention of the Yankees as a potential trade partner makes a lot of sense (though not necessarily by his reasoning) and in a slow off-season like this, it's enough to merit discussion. The Twins have traded a star player in his prime to the Yankees for a crop of prospects before (see: Knoblauch, Charles) and by the time 2008 rolls around we could see them do it again. For the future of the franchise, it might be the wisest choice.