NASHVILLE - Listen to any jukebox in Music City, and you understand that this is a town where at the end of the night, shot glasses and promises tend to turn up empty.
It was no different this week for the Red Sox in their pursuit of Johan Santana, not that there was any evidence of Johnnie Walker Red in Theo Epstein's suite.
The Sox were prepared to return home today without the two-time Cy Young Award winner, though the rebuff by the Minnesota Twins may be temporary. No one on either side is declaring that negotiations have come to an end; with no one other than Yankees owner Hank Steinbrenner setting artificial deadlines, there is every reason to believe talks will continue in the coming weeks to determine if the sides can agree to a match.
The pressure to trade Santana is strictly an economic one, which is why the halls of the Opryland Hotel were filled with folks who predict a deal will eventually get done: Santana is eligible for free agency after the 2008 season; the small-market Twins, who only a few years ago were targeted by Major League Baseball for contraction, don't have the money to meet his demands; and the deep-pockets clubs do.
For now, Twins general manager Bill Smith is not satisfied with the packages proffered by the Sox. He is content to wait to see if the Sox show any willingness to part with pitcher Jon Lester and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, much like the Tigers packaged their top two prospects, pitcher Andrew Miller and outfielder Cameron Maybin, to make a blockbuster deal with the Florida Marlins for slugger Miguel Cabrera and lefthanded pitcher Dontrelle Willis.
That deal, according to one top National League executive, has made the Tigers the early favorites to win the American League pennant in 2008. "But if the Red Sox get Santana," he said of the defending World Series champions, "the Yankees will be playing for the wild card for the next five years."
The chances of the Sox and Twins striking a deal late last night appeared remote. Sox manager Terry Francona headed home yesterday after a media luncheon, and the Twins were still trying to lure other teams into the bidding. The Mariners signaled some interest; the Dodgers, a team that has the young talent required to tempt the Twins, did not. No one save Steinbrenner is ruling out the Yankees, while the Mets are dancing on the periphery.
Epstein attended an affiliates dinner last night, then expected to work late into the evening again.
"The Twins, we certainly respect the position the Twins are in," Epstein said, without specifically acknowledging the object of his affections, kind of like the David Allan Coe country song that goes, "You don't have to call me darlin', darlin'. You never even call me by my name."
"We've had amicable dialogue throughout," Epstein continued. "I don't think either side has had any issues with the process whatsoever. We're going to be open-minded to continue a dialogue. At this point, we don't have any deal to announce. We're going to keep an open mind going forward and continue to try to improve the club."
Smith was not tipping his hand last night, but the Twins reserve the right to decide that a better course is to start the season with Santana and attempt to deal him again at the July trading deadline. Even if they do strike an agreement, any team trading for Santana is certain to ask for a 72-hour window to negotiate a contract extension.
"I don't know anything about Santana right now other than he's still my pitcher," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said yesterday, "and the worst-case scenario for me is if nothing happens, then he starts for me, and I can't complain about that.
"So, all kinds of talk and all kinds of this and that, but nothing has happened and nothing is imminent, and he's still my starting pitcher. That's what I know about Johan Santana."
Santana has a no-trade clause, so he could block a deal to a team to which he has no interest in going. While his agent, Peter Greenberg, was quoted earlier in the week as saying Santana is not insisting he be dealt to the Sox or Yankees, there were indications he is not wild about going to a West Coast team such as the Mariners, who appear more focused on landing Japanese pitcher Hiroki Kuroda or swinging a deal for Orioles pitcher Erik Bedard.
It also remains to be seen whether the Twins will feel compelled to make a deal sooner rather than later, because there are reports Santana has told the club he would invoke his no-trade clause in July. Gardenhire was asked whether a trade this winter would be better than a deadline deal.
"There are a lot of intangibles that go into these things, a lot of issues," he said. "We're trying to do what's right for our ball club and for Johan. Obviously, there's been a lot of talk between our GM and our people upstairs and Johan and his agent, and there are a lot of wishes, a lot of ways they want things to happen. And you know what? They're all trying to work through it as best they can and try to do what's right for everybody."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.