Notes: Nathan hopes for extension
Closer's contract negotiations with Twins 'slowing down'
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If Twins closer Joe Nathan had his way, the rest of his career would be spent in Minnesota.Since the Twins first approached the right-hander at the Winter Meetings in December with interest in signing him to an extension, Nathan has been very optimistic that a deal would be completed and that his wish might be granted. Still, the negotiation process has been a slow one, and right now, Nathan admits that talks between the two parties have stalled. "I just think, right now, we're at a point where we need to take a step back and maybe talk with them some time later this week," Nathan said. "Then we'll see if it's something that's even worth talking about during the season or not." Talks between the two parties didn't officially get under way until the start of Spring Training, with the Twins' focus this winter admittedly on their six arbitration-eligible players. Since talks began earlier this spring, Nathan said that the two sides have held some good discussions, but the main focus of conversation right now has centered on the deal's length. Right now, that is where the two sides are differing. Nathan said that his agent, Dave Pepe, has plans to try to talk to Twins general manager Terry Ryan in the coming days to see where the two parties stand as the club enters the final week of Spring Training. "The talks are just to see where Terry is in his mind-set right now," Nathan said. "I don't think there is a whole lot to be said. We're kind of slowing down in the process." In just three years with the Twins, Nathan has already established himself as one of the elite closers in the game. He ranks second in team history in saves with 123 and trails only Rick Aguilera, who recorded 254 from 1989-98. Despite not earning All-Star honors last year for the first time since being traded to the Twins prior to the '04 season, Nathan had arguably his best season in '06, when he went 7-0 with a 1.58 ERA and 36 saves in 38 attempts. In the current market, in which top-echelon closers are making close to $10 million a season, it's clear that the Twins currently have a bargain on their hands in Nathan. He is set to make $5.25 million this season, the final guaranteed year of his contract, but the Twins also have a $6 million club option for '08 that is expected to be picked up. Ryan has declined comment regarding any contract negotiations this spring, citing a club policy against discussing contracts during the season. But while Nathan noted that the process has hit a sort of impasse, it hasn't detracted from his feelings that a deal will at some point get completed. "I'm happy with the organization, I'm happy with the team and the city and I want to be here," Nathan said. "So I'm still very optimistic." Roster decisions coming: The Twins are prepared to make more roster cuts on Tuesday, which should shed some light on their plans for the starting rotation. Though Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said that the plans for who will start the games over the next week are essentially set in place, he was not willing to announce anything until the team was informed of the moves on Tuesday. The final spots in the rotation have not been etched out yet, but it appears that four pitchers have already secured spots. Those include Johan Santana, Ramon Ortiz, Boof Bonser and Sidney Ponson, who appeared to assure himself of a spot with his performance on Monday, pitching six scoreless innings and allowing just five hits while striking out three. That leaves only Matt Garza and Carlos Silva to battle over the final spot in the rotation. It seemed early in Spring Training that Silva's spot was not in question, but that changed with his recent struggles. The right-hander allowed nine runs on 11 hits over 3 1/3 innings to the Phillies on Sunday. After that start, Gardenhire said that the club would not hesitate to make changes in regard to Silva if the pitcher did not improve.
But while Ponson appears to have secured his spot, he wasn't so quick to anoint himself as a starter just yet. Ponson threw just 72 pitches in six innings on Monday against his former team, the Orioles, and showed an ability to get ground-ball outs, which is what the Twins were hoping to see from the former power-pitching veteran. Still, Ponson left the decision-making up to his skipper."Until the day that the manager calls me to the office and says, 'You made the team,' I can't answer the question," Ponson said when asked if he feels he's earned his spot. "Right now, they tell me nothing. I just have to keep going out there and do what I have to do to get outs, and hopefully, they will let me know." An extra arm? Along with the starting rotation, another question mark that remains for the Twins is whether the team will break camp with 11 or 12 pitchers. The expectation has been that if the club went with an extra pitcher, it would add either right-hander J.D. Durbin or lefty Mike Venafro. But Durbin, who is out of Minor League options, certainly didn't help his case on Monday. He pitched one inning, allowing four runs on five hits while walking one and raising his spring ERA to 12.38. "Durbin had a bit of a hard time out there," Gardenhire said. "He's kind of overthrowing the ball right now. It looks like he's letting it fly and not locating it very well. When you do that, you get hit pretty hard." Venafro, on the other hand, continued to shine, as he pitched another scoreless inning against the Orioles. In 10 innings this spring, Venafro has not given up a run and has demonstrated that he can work out of jams, like one he faced on Thursday night against the Devil Rays. Working for the weekend: Exactly when catcher Joe Mauer and third baseman Nick Punto will be able to return to the Twins lineup is still uncertain, although Gardenhire reported on Monday that he hopes to have the two players back on the field at some point this weekend. Mauer, who has a stress reaction in his left fibula, caught a bullpen session on Monday morning and took some swings on the field, but he has not yet been cleared to run. Gardenhire said that Mauer reported feeling good during his activities. Punto has still not done any work on the field due to his sore groin muscle, but he took swings in the batting cage on Monday. He reported to feeling much better as well. The hope for Gardenhire is that both Mauer and Punto will get at least some playing time before the team returns to Minnesota for Opening Day on April 2. Shortstop Jason Bartlett was back in the starting lineup on Monday after being was scratched from Sunday's trip to Clearwater with two bruised fingers on his right hand. Bartlett hurt his knuckles when he took a line drive off his hand during Saturday's game against the Pirates. Coming up: The Twins will host the Yankees on Tuesday in a 12:05 p.m. CT Grapefruit League contest. Bonser will get the start for Minnesota and take on Yankees right-hander Carl Pavano.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.