NASHVILLE - Zero hour for a Johan Santana trade may be approaching.
Yankees owner Hank Steinbrenner, vowing "not to be played" by the Red Sox, said publicly the Minnesota Twins must make a decision on whether to accept New York's offer by today, or it will be withdrawn.
The Sox, who so far are prepared to offer pitcher Jon Lester or center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury but not both as part of their package to acquire the two-time Cy Young Award winner, placed Ellsbury back on the table, which would cause a reshuffling of the players who would have gone as part of a Lester deal (Coco Crisp, Jed Lowrie, Justin Masterson). An Ellsbury deal almost certainly would include either Masterson and/or Michael Bowden, but Clay Buchholz was not in play as of last night. The Sox have not set a deadline on their offer.
Santana reportedly has informed the Twins he would not be willing to waive his no-trade clause after the season begins, which would take away Minnesota's option of waiting until the July trading deadline, when it could either weigh its chances of winning with Santana in the rotation or offering him up for bidding again.
Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, vice president of player personnel Ben Cherington, and manager Terry Francona arrived here last night on the same flight from Boston. Epstein had little to say, other than to caution it was possible the Sox would not be making any deals during the meetings, which officially begin today and end with Thursday's Rule 5 draft.
But in the meantime, the Sox and Yankees clearly were locked head-to-head in another historic competition for a premier talent, just as they have been in recent years for Cuban defector Jose Contreras, free agents Johnny Damon and Roger Clemens, and Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Steinbrenner told Newsday he expects the Yankees' offer - top pitching prospect Phil Hughes, outfielder Melky Cabrera, and another prospect - to trump whatever the Sox place on the table.
"I think our offer is the best offer," Steinbrenner told the newspaper.
"We have the best young pitchers in the game, even better than Boston."
But Steinbrenner was adamant about trying to protect the Yankees from having the price for Santana dictated by the Sox, which is why he is imposing a deadline.
"The truth of the matter is, they don't want to be stuck with only one team to deal with," Steinbrenner said. "If they're stuck with just Boston, they're going to get a lot less. I'm not going to be played.
"This is not a game. This is serious business. I'm not going to be played, us against the Red Sox. That's not going to happen."
It has happened time and again, of course - certainly with Contreras, Damon, and Clemens - and in a way with Matsuzaka, the Sox posting millions more than any other club to ensure they would win the right to negotiate with the Japanese righthander. Steinbrenner said the identity of the third player the Yankees would give up for Santana is not a deal breaker.
Ellsbury, a No. 1 draft pick in 2005, became an instant fan favorite when he hit .353 in 33 games with the Sox this past season, won a place on the postseason roster, took over as the starting center fielder in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, and became just the third rookie in World Series history to collect four hits in a game.
But the Twins, who lost center fielder Torii Hunter in free agency (he signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Angels), need a replacement in the outfield, and the Sox would part with Ellsbury if it meant getting Santana, widely acknowledged as the best lefthander in the game.
A rotation that featured 20-game winner Josh Beckett, Santana, and Matsuzaka, with some combination of veterans Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield or youngsters Buchholz and Lester, likely would make the Sox prohibitive favorites in the American League East for the near future.
The Sox paid dearly to acquire Beckett in the winter of 2005, trading elite shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitching prospects, and while Ellsbury appears to have a bright future in the big leagues, the Sox still would have Crisp, who played Gold Glove-caliber defense in 2007, under contract for the next two seasons (a combined $10.5 million) while holding a club option of $8 million in 2010.
Whichever team strikes an agreement with the Twins for Santana, it likely would be granted a 72-hour negotiating window to come to terms on a contract extension for Santana, who according to reports is planning to ask for a six-year, $150 million deal.
The possibility remains, of course, that new Twins GM Bill Smith will find all offers unacceptable and keep Santana in 2008, but that seems the least likely course.
Nick Cafardo of the Globe staff contributed to this report.