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The Santana Gambit: What's Your Backup Plan?

90-Minute Editorial:  Can the Twins avoid being undersold?

Nobody wants Johan Santana enough to step up to the plate and stand in against Bill Smith.  Smith stands on the rubber, and everyone knows what he's throwing, yet general managers around the league are scuffing the toes of their cleats in the on-deck circle.  Each and everyone of them know what they'll get if they can ball up and step into the box.  So far, Bill Smith has no takers.

If any team (including the big three of the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets) wanted Santana, they would already have him.  Each of the leading three teams, in assorted states of "needing" an ace, is a single player from consumating the rarest of trades:  the trade that brings to your team the best player at his position.  Yet the Yankees are hemming over a prospect who projects as a number two starter; the Red Sox have offered two packages but refuse to include the one player (Jacoby Ellsbury in lieu of Coco Crisp) who could complete the deal; the Mets, who are offering the weakest package in spite of the quantity, are jittery about handing over a 19-year old outfielder.

There's no misunderstanding what a trade of this magnitude means for each of the clubs involved.  For any team who acquires Santana, the cost is high in prospects and in contract dollars.  Any team who gets involved understands the balance between what you're giving up and what you're getting, and tries to get the most value for the least cost to themselves.  And in spite of this, each of the three teams knows they're one player from completing a deal, and they've thus far refused to take the last step.

So, if you're Bill Smith, what do you do?

Option A:  Blink

This is the undersell.  In a situation where the Twins organization feels that the best offers they'll receive are already on the table, in a situation where they feel their position will continue to erode as time passes, they'll likely call Boston or one of the New York clubs and accept an offer that (at face value) appears to be a weak return.  While a trade is better judged down the road, when contributions to the team are more in perspective, a trade will always face the jury the day it goes down.  As the offers sit today, whatever team landed Johan Santana would come out ahead.

Option B:  Stare In

Continuing to wait for one of the suitors to make the first move is the largest gamble, because you're either going to get paid off by attaining what Johan is worth, or you're going to get stuck making the best of your two draft picks...which is what nobody wants.  In the worst-case scenario Santana becomes a free agent, and while the Twins are left with very uninspiring compensation for the best starter in baseball over the last four seasons, everyone else will be falling all over themselves to throw the most money at the Venezuelan southpaw.  If Johan Santana wants an extension worth $140 million over seven years, how much more does he get on the open market?  While the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox won't pay the cost of high-level prospects, they will be up against each other (and the Angels, Dodgers, Rangers and maybe more) to see who's willing to break the bank and break the record for how much a pitcher gets paid.

Option C:  Take Your Ball and Go Home

This option involves re-thinking the direction of the organization over the next two years and beyond.  If Bill Smith decides that nobody is offering up what Santana is worth (and they aren't), is it a realistic option to re-sign him?

Of course it is, but it involves serious financial committment (which puts a choke hold on payroll flexibility), and creativity in filling other needs in the next couple of seasons.  Re-signing Santana means Minnesota would need to pony up a lot of money, but it also refortifies their bargaining position to trade him in the future.

  1.  Re-signing Santana keeps Minnesota from a position where they "need" to trade him; it keeps them from being put into a position where they might need to accept less than he's worth or, worse still, it keeps them from being put into a position where they might need to accept two draft picks as compensation.
  2.  Re-signing Santana strengthens Minnesota's position should they decide to trade him at another juncture.  Not only does Johan already have the money he wants, but the recipient of his services won't have to deal with negotiating an extension or trying to bid against other clubs for his services.
  3.  Re-signing Santana sends a clear signal to the rest of baseball that the Twins aren't an organization that will automatically roll over and simply hand away a player who appears to be "out of their league".  The Twins have a reputation, deserved or not, of making a killing when acquiring minor league talent; this also means they have a reputation for dealing away their star players.
Additionally, in a different vein, re-signing Santana sends a message to the team that the organization expects them to compete in the short term.  Professional ballplayers shouldn't need inspiration to play to win, but there's something to be said when you're able to look at someone of Santana's stature in your locker room.  It's not a quantifiable factor (apart from how much better Johan would be than his replacement), but chemistry (on the field and in the clubhouse) matters.

Final Thoughts

It's clear to me that the Yankees and Red Sox are doing just enough to keep the other team from picking up Santana, while not committing enough of their own to get him for themselves.  I believe the Mets are more sincere in their interest, but are wary of depleting their entire farm system.  As a result, none of the three teams are presenting an offer that makes the effort of trading Santana worth the process.

This puts Bill Smith in a very precarious and potentially career-defining position.  Should something change and he's able to land one of the packages he's been asking for, he'll be dubbed a genious, one of the game's best general managers, and the perfect successor to Terry Ryan.  If Johan walks, he'll be labelled unfairly and blamed for not "taking what he could get"...when in reality, he wasn't being offered a fair deal in the first place, and therefore was in a winless situation.

I realize that taking a new direction, that re-signing Johan Santana to a long-term contract, is a financial risk and that it alters whatever future plans Bill Smith may have had for the Twins entering the '07/'08 off-season.  But I also believe that adaptation is a requirement to survive as a competetor in baseball, and it's important to be able to make those adjustments when things don't go to plan.

If I'm playing Bill Smith, I'm re-signing Johan Santana.  There are pros on the list and there are cons, but when you weigh each of the options available I believe that going in this direction puts the Twins in the best situation going forward.  Take Santana off the table, and find a new way to make the plan work.