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Meet the Mets

Former darkhorse takes the lead in Santana derby

Posted: Wednesday January 23, 2008 12:22PM; Updated: Wednesday January 23, 2008 1:57PM
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Johan Santana
Johan Santana's only shutout of 2007 came against the Mets at Shea Stadium, which could be his home ballpark in 2008.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Once written off as an extreme long shot in the long-running Johan Santana drama, the Mets may actually be the favorite now. At the very least, there are indications now that they are engaging in more regular dialogue with the Twins in recent days than either the Red Sox or Yankees. And Mets general manager Omar Minaya, who loves a big deal but hasn't made one since the winter before last, has told some people in the business, "We have a shot.''

Minaya declined to comment when I reached him on Tuesday. But there are some definite signs that the Twins may be warming to the idea of taking a package of projects and prospects with high ceilings while not insisting on much in the way of major-league help. Which, if true, would give the Mets a real shot.

When Minnesota began shopping Santana in early December, I was told the Twins would have to get Jose Reyes back in a Mets deal, a non-starter for the Mets who understandably consider Reyes a cornerstone player and aren't about to deal him for a pitcher -- even a great pitcher -- who's a year away from free agency and would require an extension at $22-to-$25 million. But in recent weeks I was told that there was indeed a Mets deal to be made, even without Reyes or David Wright or someone of that ilk. That the Twins and Mets continue to talk seems to support that assertion.

But for the Mets to actually land Santana it will take at least two significant hurdles being cleared, and that doesn't include having to negotiate a long-term contract with him. First, the Mets have to agree to send over a package of many real prospects, probably five or more, which would considerably deplete their minor-league resources. Second, the Red Sox and Yankees, who are both better stocked at the upper reaches of the minors, have to continue to take a less then enthusiastic approach in the competition to add one of the game's top two pitchers.

Neither the Red Sox, who have seemed consistently lukewarm in this derby, nor the Yankees, who have run hot and cold, has been as aggressive as one might expect considering their longstanding fight over players big and small. At this point, it appears either might simply be happy not to see Santana go to the other.

The Red Sox have stuck for weeks with their offer of two separate deals, one led by young lefthander Jon Lester and the other by young center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Boston also appears willing to include three more prospects with each, including decent young players such as infielder Jed Lowrie and pitchers Justin Masterson and Michael Bowden. However, Boston has been consistent in refusing to combine both Lester and Ellsbury in the same package. Red Sox GM Theo Epstein has seemed very comfortable with his offers and has given the impression that he could live without Santana, understandable in that the world champions may already have baseball's best rotation without him.

The Yankees remain the wild card. GM Brian Cashman has made the rejuvenation of the team's farm system his calling card and is said to be against trading even one top-flight young pitcher, such as Phil Hughes. But newly-empowered general partner Hank Steinbrenner is said by insiders to be much more willing to do what it takes in terms of prospects and dollars to land Santana.

However, Steinbrenner's younger son, the less free-wheeling and more buttoned-down Hal, who's said to be in charge of the purse strings, is believed to be siding with Cashman's call to proceed cautiously. Club insiders could see the two sons eventually butting heads over a major expenditure such as this one, but with Cashman strongly siding with the junior Steinbrenner they aren't sure whether Hank will press the issue over Santana. Ultimately, unless Hank is willing to fight his brother and a general manager he's hoping to retain beyond 2008 (Cashman has not yet discussed an extension, preferring instead to see how things play out in the new hierarchy), the Yankees are unlikely to accede to the Twins' requests to go beyond Hughes, outfielder Melky Cabrera, pitching prospect Jeffrey Marquez and a lesser prospect.

With the Red Sox and Yankees less aggressive than one might expect, there still may be an opening for the Mets, who need Santana much more than the other two teams. For them, Santana would be a perfect fit, the No. 1 pitcher to go in front of Pedro Martinez and John Maine and make the fans and players focus on something other than the team's dreadful finish to the 2007 season.

The current prospects on the table appear to be outfielder Carlos Gomez plus pitchers Deolis Guerra, Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey. None of these players is likely to make the immediate impact of a Lester, an Ellsbury or a Hughes. But some scouts believe the overall talent will be greater in a Mets package, and that they should work it out with the team from Queens.

It appears the Twins may favor Gomez over Fernando Martinez because Gomez can play center field, a need since the defection of fan favorite Torii Hunter to the Angels, and may actually like Humber as much as the Mets' more ballyhooed pitching prospect Mike Pelfrey, whose stock waned last season. In any case the Twins aren't as desperate for immediate pitching help as some might imagine, since they are well-stocked with minor-league arms.

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