Nathan content to wait for offer -- or free agency

MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Nathan is just sitting in the bullpen,
waiting for the call.

"We're in a good spot. We know what our value is. We know what
the market value is, and that's what we're going to be looking
for," the Minnesota Twins closer said, referring to him and his agent.

The Twins will pay Nathan, a two-time All-Star with 160 saves
and a 1.94 ERA over the past four seasons, $6 million this year to
reapply his stamp on the ninth inning.

That's if they decide not to trade Nathan at some point. The
team has been trying for months to move two-time Cy Young Award
winner Johan Santana, who will make $13.25 million in the final
season of his deal.

Though Nathan is entering the final year of his contract and 11
months from his first foray into free agency, his salary is a
bargain by baseball's standards for elite closers. Last season, the
Yankees paid Mariano Rivera $10.5 million and the Mets gave Billy
Wagner the same amount. Several other top relievers outearned
Nathan, too.

"I think we definitely gave them a really good deal this last
time around. I felt I left quite a bit of money on the table, to be
honest," Nathan said, referring to talks in March 2005. "This
time around, we expect it to be different."

The 33-year-old, who joined more than 30 of his teammates at the
Metrodome this weekend for the club's annual fan festival, said he
would like to pitch for seven or eight more years. Nathan and his
agent, Dave Pepe, have had "good conversations" with the Twins
about his status. But there has not been a specific offer made to
extend his contract this winter.

"We've just kind of anticipated they'll address the Santana
situation first, not that Joe's not a priority," Pepe said. He
added: "We do have confidence that the Twins are going to do
what's right for the Twins. Joe's going to try to do what's right
for him, obviously. If the two paths meet, they meet. If they
diverge, they diverge."

Nathan is content to wait. Players typically don't initiate talk
about new contracts when they come inside of year of free agency.

"We told them if they want to get something done they're going
to have to call us," Nathan said. "We tried to negotiate a little
bit, and nothing was really addressed."

General manager Bill Smith said the situation with Nathan is
status quo, as in the Twins are not currently trying to trade him
or sign him to an extension.

"With a younger rotation, it's great to have a veteran
bullpen," Smith said. "Experience in the bullpen is I think a
strength of ours. We've got essentially the same group of guys. He
was very good for us last year, especially in the first half."

The Twins will be counting on the same production from Nathan,
assuming he stays through the season, as well as side-arming setup
man Pat Neshek and emerging middle man Matt Guerrier. They'll be
seeking bounce-back seasons from left-hander Dennys Reyes and
right-hander Juan Rincon. They'll be hoping for a strong recovery
by right-hander Jesse Crain, who hasn't pitched since major
shoulder surgery last May.

Minnesota has had one of baseball's strongest relief corps for
most of this decade, and that shouldn't change with the returning
group that Nathan is set to lead into 2008.

If Santana is ultimately dealt, however, an argument can be made
that it's not worth paying for an All-Star closer -- even at a
below-market salary -- when there probably won't be as many games to
close. That's why the door is likely still open for a deal. When
the July 31 deadline approaches, relievers are often at the top of
the want list for many contending teams.

So for now, the Twins won't trade Nathan.

Not, as Smith repeated one of his favorite lines of the winter,
"unless it makes our club better."