Santana solid gold

Nothing has greater value in the major leagues than a young pitcher who hits it big in a hurry, as Johan Santana has done with the Twins. This is baseball's gold strike.

Santana is currently a runaway favorite for the Cy Young Award and probably will get some top-10 votes for the Most Valuable Player Award, and the Twins are paying him just $1.6 million; seven other Twins are paid more. Santana went 12-7 with a 3.03 ERA in 2003, for a mere $335,000.

Cheap and young pitching is the root of Oakland's success. From the beginning of 2000 through games played Tuesday night, the Athletics' record when Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito has started is an incredible 297-156, 141 games over .500, for a winning percentage of .656. When anybody else has pitched, the Athletics' record is 179-159 -- a little better than .500 per season over a five-year span.

And yet, for 2000-2003, Oakland's total bill for four seasons of three All-Star pitchers was just under $10 million, out of the approximately $157 million spent by the Athletics. In 2001, the Athletics were 71-33 in games pitched by The Big Three, 31-27 when others pitched, and their collective salary was $997,500; Kevin Brown makes more than that in two weeks. (In addition, Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez made $625,000 in 2001, and shortstop Miguel Tejada earned $2,025,000, so five All-Star caliber players cost the Athletics $3.65 million out of a budget of $34 million.)

Teams can spend about 25 percent of their budget just to get three high-quality starters, and Oakland had its Hunter-Holtzman-Blue or Seaver-Koosman-Matlack types for relative pennies. The Red Sox, for example, are paying Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe $34 million this year, or 27 percent of their Opening Day budget.

The problem with great young pitchers is they get older, and more expensive. Inevitably, the Twins and Athletics will have to make tough choices about keeping the pitchers as their salaries spiral upward -- and that's where the Yankees and Red Sox enter the equation.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is on the New York Times Best-Seller List and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.