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While a handful of teams are still battling for a playoff spot, or getting ready for the playoffs, a lot of action and anticipation is already being focused on the off-season. This year’s crop of free agents is interesting - especially since it seems likely that Alex Rodriguez will opt out of his contract with the and become a free agent. But A-Rod isn’t the only name buzzing around that has everyone excited.

The player getting all that hype is Johan Santana. The superstar pitcher isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2008 season, but after 6 seasons as arguably the best pitcher in the game that isn’t going to slow down the rumors. And if you listen, what you’ll hear isn’t that surprising. Johan Santana, 2 time Cy Young winner is heading towards a very big payday.

Just how big that payday is going to be is the question. Few pundits doubt that his contract will be the richest contract ever given to a starting pitcher and guesses as to amounts have ranged from $22-26 million dollars per season with a four to seven year length of contract.

That’s just about the total payroll for some small market teams (Tampa Bay’s payroll is just over $24 million for 2007), and a big chunk of money even for the richest teams in the game. And even with all of that there isn’t a team in baseball who wouldn’t like to have Santana.

And right now that’s a problem for the Minnesota Twins.

No doubt the front office in Minnesota is scrambling and trying to figure out just if they can afford to pay him. The Twins this year are spending almost $72 million dollars on payroll and Santana’s salary of $13 million accounts to just about 20% of that. For a franchise looking at the wrong side of .500 this season, that’s a lot of money. But management has to ask themselves just how much worse this team would be without Santana?

The answer of course is that it depends on just what they could get for him.

Every team in baseball is thinking about this too. Just what can they offer? What can they afford to offer? And if they make the offer can they afford to sign him? Presumably any team who would consider putting together a package would do so contingent on negotiating a long term deal with the pitcher.

And the Twins are going to be listening. If they don’t re-sign Santana (or trade him) themselves, he’ll be gone after the 2008 season leaving the Twins with only a draft pick as compensation. That could happen regardless of the best efforts of the Twins. Santana has a no trade clause which he’ll have to waive for the team to move him, and he could decide that he’s going to test the free agent market regardless of what offers might get thrown to him or to the Twins.

It’s unlikely however that Santana would have a problem however with a trade to a contending team who could afford to pay him - at least if that is what is important to Johan. If winning isn’t as important as the size of the check the market for his services grows.

While the usual suspects (Boston, New York, LA, and Anaheim) certainly can open their pocketbooks, it’s the young, loaded with up and coming talent teams who might be able to dangle the most attractive packages in front of the Twins, but that would be contingent on small market teams being willing to spend the money it would take to sign, rather than develop a pitcher who could be the cornerstone for a team.

But in the end it all comes down to Santana and what he wants. There are plenty of teams looking to rebuild, or searching for identity. There are teams like the Nationals with new owners, a new stadium and deep pockets. There are the rich large market teams hungry for an ace. And there is always the chance that the Twins will take a stab at locking down Santana and keeping him as the centerpiece of their organization.