The question posed by Jonathan Papelbon last night to a small group of reporters at an awards dinner thrown by the Lowell Spinners was no different from the one preoccupying Red Sox fans all week.
"Did we get Santana yet?" the Sox closer asked.
As of last night, Twins ace lefthander Johan Santana had not changed teams. The Red Sox and Yankees remain the parties with the most obvious interest in striking a deal for the two-time Cy Young Award winner, though it appeared more likely that if Minnesota makes a trade with the Sox, it will not come before the winter meetings in Nashville.
The Yankees last night may have emerged as the front-runners when they elected to include top pitching prospect Phil Hughes in a package for Santana, according to a major league source (and reported by the New York Daily News), while the Sox still refuse to include center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury or pitcher Clay Buchholz, their top two prospects.
"If I had to guess, I'd say nothing to announce before the meetings," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who is scheduled to arrive with a contingent that includes manager Terry Francona, pitching coach John Farrell, and hitting coach Dave Magadan in Nashville tomorrow, though the meetings do not begin until the next day.
With a deadline of midnight tonight for offering salary arbitration to their free agents, one club official said last night that the Sox had reached terms with reliever Mike Timlin on a deal to bring back the righthander for an 18th season in the big leagues, sixth with the Sox. The Sox are believed to have offered Timlin, who turns 42 March 10, around $3 million, a raise of around $300,000 from his 2007 salary.
Timlin, who began the year with a strained oblique muscle and had shoulder issues, appeared in just 50 games this past season, his fewest since 1995. But he was scored upon in just two of his last 22 regular-season appearances, and struck out Kaz Matsui and Troy Tulowitzki in a key moment in Game 4 of the World Series.
The Sox also intend to offer salary arbitration to reliever Eric Gagné, who would bring a first-round sandwich draft pick as compensation if another team signs him. Gagné is expected to seek a job as a closer elsewhere. The Sox' other free agents - Bobby Kielty, Eric Hinske, Doug Mirabelli, and Matt Clement - would not bring a draft pick in return. The Sox would like to bring back Kielty as a fourth outfielder if they trade Coco Crisp.
Epstein, of course, is not in a position to talk specifics about a Santana deal. "There are a lot of interesting names held out there on the trade market," Epstein said, "and whether those names are moved remains to be seen."
Neither the Sox, Yankees, nor any other potential suitor for Santana have yet to include all the names that would prompt new Twins GM Bill Smith to pull the trigger on a deal. The Sox have tried to interest the Twins in a package that includes Lester, minor league pitcher Justin Masterson, infielder Jed Lowrie, and Crisp. Top pitching prospect Michael Bowden is another potential chip.
Hughes is the player the Twins are insisting on in any deal with the Yankees. Other teams in a position to make a prospect-rich proposal for Santana include the Dodgers and Angels, though the Dodgers may elect to hold onto their kids while the Angels appear more focused on Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera.
The competition between the Sox and Yankees for Santana is reminiscent of past high-stakes duels for players, including Jose Contreras after he defected from Cuba, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. There remains the possibility the Sox could also be trying to drive up the Twins' asking price from the Yankees, though at this point the Sox' interest in Santana is genuine.
At least Papelbon hopes it is.
"I think a lot of the people and fans are making it more complicated than what it really is," Papelbon said. "It's a matter of us giving up prospects to win now, or save prospects to win later. What do you do, you know? I think we can win [as currently constituted], but I think it's the whole 'New York wants him, we've got to go get him,' blah-blah-blah."
Papelbon said there's "no doubt" he'd pursue Santana if he were the Sox, just as Yankees catcher Jorge Posada lobbied New York to acquire Santana to be at the top of the rotation.
"I think a big key in this situation is you know what you're going to get out of Santana," Papelbon said. "He's a veteran Cy Young Award winner. Sometimes you don't necessarily know what you're going to get [from a prospect]. You may think a prospect has a ton of potential, but you don't know what his potential really is until he gets to the big leagues. You know exactly what you're going to get from Santana, so do you take that gamble or not?"
Epstein said the club will attempt to strengthen its bench and bullpen in Nashville.
"But just because we're focused on those two elements doesn't mean we're going to look past other opportunities," he said. "We're going to be aggressive. Whether anything gets done, I wouldn't be comfortable hazarding a guess. We're really pleased with the position that we're in."
The Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America announced three more of its awards for the 2007 season. Kevin Youkilis won the Jackie Jensen Award, given to a major league player for "spirit and determination." Youkilis hit .288 with 16 home runs and 83 RBIs this past season and won a Gold Glove in his first season at first base. Francona won manager of the year and Buchholz and Ellsbury shared honors as Red Sox minor league players of the year. The awards will be presented at the Boston BBWAA dinner Jan. 17 at the Westin Waterfront Hotel. Tickets are still available.