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Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H11

Ever since Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig and his cohorts tried and failed to contract the Minnesota Twins in that memorable winter of 2001-02, the Twins have done nothing but win division titles and operate as a model small-market franchise.

Take this offseason. After leading the AL with a 4.03 team ERA last season, the Twins had a chance to bring back their entire 2004 pitching staff -- as long as they could get Brad Radke to re-sign. They did, at a reduced rate of $18 million over two years.

Twins left-hander Johan Santana will continue to deliver the goods in Minnesota, signing a four-year, $40 million deal during the offseason. (Kathy Willens -- AP)

Then, rather than go through a prickly arbitration hearing with ace lefty Johan Santana, they signed him to a four-year, $40 million deal that will keep him in the Twin Cities through 2008.

The Twins don't have much money -- payroll for 2005 is expected to climb from $54 million to $57 million -- but they know how to spend what they do have.

The other trick, of course, is to maintain a farm system that keeps pumping out star big leaguers -- which the Twins' certainly does. This year (one year behind schedule) is expected to see the emergence of Joe Mauer, who lost nearly all of 2004 following surgery on his left knee, as the next great catcher in baseball.

But it is the Twins' pitching that still sets them apart in an increasingly competitive AL Central, and this staff could be even better than last year, given the return of right-hander Joe Mays following elbow surgery that cost him his 2004 season.

As for Santana, last year's Cy Young Award winner, it is hard to overstate how dominant he was in 2004 -- when he held opposing hitters to a .192 batting average and went 13-0 after the all-star break. And the most amazing statistic regarding Santana is 26 -- his age. Crazy as it sounds, he might still get better.

The Twins' is not an airtight ship, of course. Their infield defense took a hit with the departures of glove men Corey Koskie, Cristian Guzman and Doug Mientkiewicz, and teams in Minnesota's tax bracket always have to skimp on such luxuries as bench and bullpen personnel.

But the AL Central is an exceedingly winnable division, and the Twins remain its toughest inhabitant.

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