Where will Santana pitch this season?

Where will Santana pitch this season?

Bill Smith sits at the table, waiting for one of the three other teams under the glaring light to say, "All in."

The Yankees, the Red Sox and the Mets lean back in their hot seats with passive expressions, waiting for the Minnesota Twins general manager to fold.

Neither has yet happened. So Johan Santana remains in the pot. The offseason potboiler keeps dishing the suspense, as the baseball world and its subjects muse endlessly about the pitcher's destination.

And the Santana Reel remains in the tape deck.

A week ago, the Twins embarked on their annual winter caravan toting two promotional videos, one featuring Santana, the other omitting him.

Club broadcasting director Andy Price explained, "We did it out of necessity, in case a deal were to happen while we're out on the road. This is the first time we've ever been in a situation like this."

A "situation like this" results when an exceptional young talent's peak coincides with the last, fraying strands of his team's tether. When the team is financially limited as are the Twins, making a profitable trade is the only option.

But, where?

The Mets need him the most. The Red Sox need the Yankees to not get him, and vice versa.

The cards have been on the felt for six weeks now. They aren't changing.

Smith's quandary: Bet on the flop, with a package of four upside young Mets prospects; or go with the Majors-ready players topping the offers by the Red Sox (Jacoby Ellsbury, or Jon Lester and Coco Crisp) or the Yankees (Phil Hughes and Melky Cabrera).

In a month, Spring Training camps will be humming. Those tuned to this theatre all agree: By then, Santana may not necessarily have a new address (the Twins and Red Sox both train in Ft. Myers), but he will have a new uniform.

Speculation about holding onto Santana for his walk season right now gives the Twins trade-talk leverage, but actually doing so is not a valid option.

Retaining the ace for an American League Central title run may not be realistic against beefed-up Detroit and formidable defending champion Cleveland.

And Santana's full no-trade clause undermines the typical strategy of spiking the market approaching the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline: At that point, Santana would likely veto any deal and wait to hit the open market two months later.

Logic levies the pre-Spring Training deadline, but no one has expressly laid down any ultimatums. You can't rush enormity.

Bowing to the pitcher and his agent, Smith recently told Minnesota media, "Peter Greenberg and Santana have been phenomenal through this whole process. They've been patient. They understand it's a big deal to them and it's a big deal to the Minnesota Twins."

Still, Smith is having quite a honeymoon as Minnesota's general manager. Whenever his path crosses Terry Ryan, who opened the door for his long-time aide with his September resignation but who remains an advisor to the team, he must mutter under his breath, "Thanks a lot."

Smith has already watched free agent Torii Hunter leave to the Angels, and now must devise a better exit strategy for Santana, who in four seasons in the Twins rotation (for four years prior to that, he worked primarily out of the bullpen) has won 70 games and two Cy Young Awards. Furthermore, before a weakened cast contributed to his 15-13 record of last season, Santana had been 55-19 the previous three.

That's a needle that sticks out of the pitching haystack. A pricey needle. So the three teams that can afford Santana's neighborhood -- he will seek a $20 million-a-year extension for at least six seasons atop the $13.25 million he will make in 2008 -- are predictably bidding for him from the team that can't.

The key players in this drama? Besides, that is, the poker faces of Smith, Mets GM Omar Minaya, Boston GM Theo Epstein and the Bombers triumvirate of GM Brian Cashman and Hal and Hank Steinbrenner?

From the Mets, it's a teenage outfielder, Fernando Martinez. He is considered New York's top prospect and, at 19, is projected to play in Triple-A this year. Smith wants him, added to a package that already includes 22-year-old outfielder Carlos Gomez and three pitching projects -- 18-year-old Deolis Guerra, 22-year-old Kevin Mulvey and 25-year-old Phil Humber.

From the Yankees, it's Ian Kennedy, the 23-year-old right-hander who wowed scouts in three September starts. Smith wants him, alongside Hughes -- even an early offseason in-house determination that he was the single best available arm not making him enough.

From the Red Sox, it's Ellsbury. The fleet, impressive outfielder has been made available, headlining a lesser package separate from another headlined by Lester. Smith wants both headliners.

And he waits. He waits for this drama to play out on the star attraction's merits, not through any grandstanding.

"Anybody who makes a trade for him is going to do it because it makes them better," Smith said, with Midwestern simplicity. "We're not talking about a fourth starter here. We're talking about the best pitcher in the game."

He waits for Minaya to relent, while the Red Sox and Yankees play their little game of keep-away.

As currently constituted, the Mets rotation includes Pedro Martinez, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey and Orlando Hernandez. Among injuries, growing pains and unexpected revelations, that quintet won 45 games in a 2007 season that fell a game short.

On the surface, there would appear to be a greater tangible need for a No. 1 arm on that staff than in either Boston or the Bronx -- nevermind the added factor that Santana would bridge the credibility gap Mets opened up with their late-season collapse.

The Red Sox are intact after their World Series triumph, the Yankees feel comfortable with the young cream that rose to the top through 2007's many crises.

But ... Boston's rotation includes a pair of 40-somethings (Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield) next to Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Lester. And further regression by 39-year-old Mike Mussina would leave Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang as the only veteran anchors around Hughes, Kennedy -- and likely Joba Chamberlain.

You aren't going to mitigate the impact of a Santana, however. Last season, no one on any of those three staffs logged as many innings (219), and only Beckett's 3.27 ERA was lower (slightly: even at a five-year "high," Santana's ERA was 3.33).

Of course, Santana isn't all about 2008. He is long-term commitment and, ideally, solution, as his new contract will reflect. And beyond 2008, all three teams have an equal need for a quality top-of-the-rotation hurler.

So the poker game goes on, and it's for high stakes. In the blink of an eye, Santana will have a new home, and three division races will have new angles.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.