NASHVILLE - The decision on whether the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball will be wearing a Red Sox uniform in 2008 is in the hands of a one-time French major from North Hampton, N.H., a little town of fewer than 5,000 people in the southeast corner of the state.
Bill Smith, the new general manager of the Minnesota Twins who got his first job in baseball when he skipped a week of school in college and took a bus to the winter meetings being held in Toronto, did not blink when blustery Yankees owner Hank Steinbrenner gave him a deadline to accept New York's offer for Johan Santana.
Yesterday Smith rejected the proposal, one to which the Yankees refused to add pitching prospect Ian Kennedy in a package that included top pitching prospect Phil Hughes and outfielder Melky Cabrera, and Steinbrenner conceded that the Yankees were no longer in the bidding for the two-time Cy Young Award winner.
If Steinbrenner can be taken at his word - and there is evidence suggesting that is a debatable proposition - then it would seem that Smith was left to decide whether the Red Sox had offered him sufficient talent to part with Santana, who is eligible for free agency after the 2008 season and already has been deemed too expensive for the Twins to re-sign.
In the couple of months since taking over from predecessor Terry Ryan, Smith has not been timid. He made a major trade last week, sending top pitching prospect Matt Garza to Tampa Bay for promising outfielder Delmon Young, in an attempt to ease the sting of losing popular center fielder Torii Hunter, who signed a five-year, $90 million deal as a free agent with Anaheim.
Now he's faced with what could be a franchise-shaping trade for two teams: shipping Santana to the Red Sox, giving them the most formidable pitching staff in baseball, for a package of prospects that will determine the course of the future for the Twins, who are scheduled to move into a new ballpark in 2009. Late Monday night, Smith requested and received medical reports on Sox lefthander Jon Lester, a procedural move that is part of most trade negotiations but signaled that talks with the Sox had reached a serious stage.
Lester has been identified as the centerpiece of a four-player package that reportedly includes center fielder Coco Crisp, made expendable by the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury; 6-foot-6-inch Justin Masterson, a sinkerballer who started in the Sox system but projects as a reliever for most clubs; and Jed Lowrie, a former Stanford star who plays both shortstop and second but likely will play second in the big leagues, with his bat his best asset.
There have also been reports that the Twins could choose a package built around Ellsbury, who became wildly popular in Boston after a spectacular debut that culminated with his four hits in Game 3 of the World Series. Masterson and Lowrie also are reported to be part of that proposal.
Up to last night, the Sox had shown no willingness to include both Ellsbury and Lester in the same package, and pitcher Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second big-league start, was reportedly declared untouchable by the Sox.
Smith has the option of trying one more time to pressure the Sox into including both players, accepting an alternate proposal, or not making a deal at all and trying to win with Santana next season. Santana has pitched more than 200 innings each of the last four seasons, has been first or second in strikeouts each of those seasons, and has led the league in fewest base-runners allowed per nine innings in that time.
Sox GM Theo Epstein and his staff were planning to assemble at midnight last night, presumably in an attempt to close the deal.
"It takes two teams to make a trade," Epstein said. "Apparently there's been a lot of speculation out there that we're close to something big. Until we actually reach agreement, we're not that close."
Yesterday afternoon, in a meeting with Boston-area reporters, Epstein said he would not be disappointed by either outcome - though he never acknowledged he was speaking in specific terms about Santana.
"I think with some of the things we're discussing, as an organization we all feel as if it's a win-win," Epstein said. "We're in a great position regardless.
"I'll issue the usual caveat, which I really believe in, that baseball is unpredictable and humbling. We might think we're in a great position and five years from now we'll look back and realize we were in a [bad] position and just didn't know it.
"But we worked hard to get in this position. We feel good about our team on the major league level. We feel good about our future. We're excited to see how it plays out. We're open to opportunities to get better and so, no, it's not nerve-racking, because either alternative is a good one."