Monday, December 03, 2007

Everything's coming our way

Well, it looks like that blowhard gene doesn't skip a generation after all.

Seriously, how much are you loving the Hank Steinbrenner Era? He's a Jennifer Love Hewitt-diggin', tabloid-courtin', droopy-joweled version of his old man, right down to the ubiquitous blue blazer. (What, no white turtleneck? Step it up, son!)

Yes, the Steinbrenner boy possesses that famous Steinbrenner bluster. Unfortunately for him, he hasn't quite mastered the art of the ultimatum quite like his dear ol' bloviating daddy did.

First Hank deftly bullied A-Rod and shrewdly manipulated that negotiation until the poor, humiliated third baseman came crawling back to New York to accept the richest freakin' contract in baseball history. And now his take-or-leave-it offer to the Twins for ace lefthander Johan Santana hangs in the air unanswered, with Minnesota making counter proposals, disregarding his false bravado, and apparently pondering alternative options . . . including, as I suppose you've heard, an intriguing bid from those meddling Boston Red Sox.

Which brings us to the poll question of the day: Whaddaya say, Sox fans? Should they go for it? Should they do - and pay - whatever it takes to get Santana from the Twins, the side benefit being, obviously, that he does not end up in New York? I'll admit it: I've got seriously mixed feelings about the pursuit of the two-time Cy Young Award winner.

The positives, of course, should be obvious even to a dope like Steve Phillips. Santana has been the dominant pitcher in the American League for half a decade. His presence in a rotation with Josh Beckett, Dice-K, and Curt Schilling would make the Sox everyone's favorite to repeat as champs. And he's humble, charismatic, and a delight to watch, sort of a mellower, southpaw version of Pedro. Santana's easy to root for, and the citizens of Fenway would quickly come to adore him.

And yet . . .

The price is appropriately steep, both in terms of Santana's salary and personnel compensation to the Twins. I have a hard time fathoming Theo Epstein committing $20 million per season to any pitcher who will be in his mid-30s at contract's end, even one as accomplished as Santana.

And you have to figure it will take Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester to make the deal happen, despite the Sox's insistence at the moment that it will be either/or. Ellsbury strikes me as somewhat overvalued right now - should the baby-faced October hero be dealt, the Pink Hats surely will weep into their $7.50 beers while yowling, "But he won us a taco!" But I stand by what I wrote in July: Ellsbury projects to be a Brett Butler type rather than the Fred Lynn/Johnny Damon hybrid his legions of admirers envision. He's talented, but hardly untouchable. But in a package with Lester, who threw the best game of his career in the biggest game of his career, and perhaps Jed Lowrie, and perhaps Justin Masterson or Michael Bowden? In that case, the status quo works for me, thanks, and given how often Epstein emphasizes the importance of having young, inexpensive contributors on the big-league roster, I imagine it will be too rich for his blood as well.

Besides, Santana may not be such a sure thing from here forward. I wrote a couple of times in the Fox column this season, he may be showing subtle signs of a decline; statistically, this was his worst season since he moved fulltime into the Minnesota rotation in 2004, and it's alarming to some degree that scouts thought he was hesitant to throw his slider during his mediocre final month of the season.

The pitcher I've often likened him to is Ron Guidry, another undersized lefty with a filthy slider who slipped from historically great to merely pretty good rather quickly. Gator's peak season - and what a season it was - came at age 27 in '78. Santana's peak has been longer and better, but he will be 29 in March, and it's worth noting that his most similar comparison on from ages 26 through 28 is Tim Hudson - respectable company, sure, but not who you'd expect for a pitcher of Santana's magnitude and reputation.

Another popular question these days is this: Should we believe Epstein is sincere in his interest? I think so . . . to a point. The Sox would love to have Santana, but on their terms. But the Yankees need Santana. Huge difference. Epstein has handled this negotiation with a casual calm - no deadlines, no worries - and part of his motivation simply has to be to drive up the ransom for the desperate Yankees, who must acquire this ace unless they want to spend the next half-decade looking up to the Sox in the standings.

Logically, the Yankees have no choice but to meet the Twins' demands - even Georgie's Boy must know this. I only hope Minnesota rookie GM Bill Smith is savvy and patient enough to wait out Son of George's next dozen or so "drop-dead deadlines" until he ends up with Philip Hughes (who's actually nine months younger than Joba Chamberlain, and a superior long-term prospect to the Midge Magnet in my opinion), Mussina-wannabe Ian Kennedy, and Melky Cabrera, an adequate talent whose energy greatly exaggerates his ability.

There are indications that Smith is getting antsy to make a deal - he is apparently willing to take outfielder Austin Jackson and righty Alan Horne instead of Kennedy, a logical proposition the Yankees reportedly rejected late last night. But in the end, if the Twins don't get a collection of talent they are pleased with in exchange for the best pitcher of this decade, it's their own fault.

After all, the Yankees are desperate to get this done. Listen closely to the blustery words of the nervous man in the blue blazer, and you might even hear it.

* * *

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Sox fans of a certain age have to be proud today that the deft and demanding manager of the Impossible Dream Sox is headed for Cooperstown, one of five candidates voted in by Veterans Committee today. Personally, I'm just hoping he remembers to wear pants to the induction ceremony. (By the way, Williams's autobiography, "No More Mr. Nice Guy," is a fantastic read. Can't recommend it highly enough. He rips everyone, save for his wife, Andre Dawson, and maybe Tony Gwynn.)

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