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Minaya had already spent two years looking for such a stopper. Last off-season he tried to pry Roy Oswalt from the Houston Astros and Carlos Zambrano from the Chicago Cubs. He tried to sign then free agents Daisuke Matsuzaka and Barry Zito. But each time, the Mets either could not swing the deal or did not want to pay the necessary price. This winter only three bona fide aces appeared on the market: Baltimore Orioles lefthander Erik Bedard, Oakland A's righty Dan Haren and Santana.
From the beginning the Mets did not have the prospects to entice Baltimore or Oakland. As the winter meetings opened in Nashville on Dec. 3, Santana was the only attractive option. But if the Twins were going to trade their ace, they wanted at least one established young player in return. The New York Yankees talked about giving up pitcher Phil Hughes, 21, and outfielder Melky Cabrera, 23. The Boston Red Sox discussed dealing either 24-year-old pitcher Jon Lester or 24-year-old outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. But when the Twins asked the Mets for All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, also 24, Minaya refused. It was going to be a battle between the Yankees and the Red Sox, as usual.
Still, every time Minaya looked at Minnesota's roster, he saw a match. Having lost Torii Hunter to free agency, the Twins needed a centerfielder, and the Mets could offer 22-year-old Carlos Gomez. The Twins wanted pitching, and the Mets had several prospects. When the meetings ended on Dec. 6 with Santana still on the block, Minaya told Jeff Wilpon, "I think this will come back to us."
"No way," Wilpon said. They settled on a wager. If Minaya could land Santana, Wilpon would buy Minaya a pair of Prada shoes.
On that day, the Yankees agreed to terms on a one-year contract with Andy Pettitte, changing the dynamic of the Santana talks. The Yankees no longer needed a starting pitcher, and the Red Sox no longer needed to worry about blocking the Yankees. "I think you better get your credit card ready," Minaya later told Wilpon.
Minaya may have been confident in private, but he was unusually quiet in public. Mets fans, accustomed to splashy headlines, wondered if their G.M. was still in mourning. But Minaya did not want to raise expectations, fearing more disappointment. As of mid-January it looked as though the Mets' biggest move of the off-season would be a trade with the Nationals for catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church. When Mets closer Billy Wagner took stock of the NL East in November, he picked his team third after the Phillies and the Braves. "I knew we'd do something," Wagner says, "but our guys were under the gun."
Throughout the winter when Randolph would call Peterson, he'd jokingly answer the phone saying, "Did we get Santana?" They both laughed, aware of the long odds. But when Peterson's phone rang in the last week of January, it was Minaya calling with a serious question: "What would Santana mean to our team?"
To find the answer, they had to look back at that horrible stretch in September. In the last 17 games—12 of which the Mets lost—their earned run average was a ghastly 5.96. In the last week they started two rookie pitchers, Philip Humber and Mike Pelfrey. And on the last day, 41-year-old Tom Glavine lasted just a third of an inning against the Marlins, the worst team in the division. The Mets knew what a difference Santana could have made. When he came to Shea Stadium in June, he beat the Mets in a complete-game shutout. "What I remember from that night was his passion and drive," Wright says. "He was determined to finish."
At this point for the Mets, finishing is all that matters. In 2006 they lost Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2007 they started 22--12, and then played on autopilot for four months. "We didn't show up," Wagner says. "It was overconfidence. It was us saying, 'We're good, we'll get in the playoffs, we'll win.'"
The Mets needed Santana, and he needed the Mets. By the end of January both parties were getting anxious. Through his agent, Peter Greenberg, Santana told the Twins that he wanted to be traded by Jan. 29. Otherwise, he could exercise his no-trade clause, play out the season in Minnesota and leave as a free agent afterward. On the night of Jan. 27, at the annual New York baseball writers dinner, Minaya told Wilpon that the Twins were looking for a final offer. The Mets had agreed to give up Gomez, Humber and pitching prospect Kevin Mulvey, 22. Then New York decided to throw in another pitching prospect, Deolis Guerra, an 18-year-old righthander from Venezuela. It was Guerra who made the package complete.