Twins may go all out to land Lee

In the past, the Twins never would have traded a prospect as good as Single-A outfielder Aaron Hicks for a potential free agent such as Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee.

Times have changed. The question is how much.

The buzz Monday night, generating from an unconfirmed report on AOL Fanhouse and circulating in the scouting community, was that the Twins offered Hicks, catcher Wilson Ramos and possibly a third, less promising prospect for Lee.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik declined to comment when asked to characterize his discussions with the Twins. No deal between the teams is imminent, another source with direct knowledge of the talks said.

Still, the Mariners have scouted the Twins extensively, a source told Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com. Morosi reported Monday that the Twins, Rangers, Mets and Yankees were among the teams having the most active conversations with the M’s concerning Lee.

For the Twins, the sooner they could get Lee, the better.

Lee next is scheduled to pitch Friday, the day the Twins open a series against the Tigers, who lead them in the AL Central by a half-game. The Brewers acquired left-hander CC Sabathia from the Indians on almost exactly this date two years ago, parting with first baseman Matt LaPorta, outfielder Michael Brantley and two others.

Hicks, 19, is not as close to the majors as LaPorta was then, but he is the Twins’ No. 1 prospect according to Baseball America. He’s a switch-hitting, five-tool outfielder with the defensive ability to excel at Seattle’s spacious Safeco Field.

Ramos, 21, is the Twins’ No. 2 prospect according to Baseball America, though he has been slowed by an oblique injury and has only a .563 OPS at Triple-A.

Two highly regarded young talents for less than three months of Lee, plus the two draft picks the Twins would receive as free-agent compensation once the pitcher departed?

Sounds steep, considering that Hicks, the 14th overall pick of the 2008 draft, probably will turn out better than any of the combined seven players that the Phillies and Mariners traded for Lee over the last 12 months.

Ramos, who signed with the Twins out of Venezuela in ‘04, might prove better than any of those prospects, too.

One rival executive was skeptical that the Twins would offer such a package, saying it would be out of character for a team that relies so heavily on scouting and player development. Another exec did not view such a trade as unreasonable, saying, “We are not big on Ramos.”

In any case, these aren’t your grandfather’s Twins, or your father’s Twins, or even the Twins of a year ago.

The opening of Target Field changed everything, giving the Twins new revenue streams and the wherewithal to lock up catcher Joe Mauer for $184 million.

Owner Jim Pohlad is more willing to spend than his late father Carl was. The Twins’ $97 million payroll is the highest in club history. Team president Dave St. Peter recently told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the number could go even higher.

Lee, meanwhile, is a certified ace who beat the Yankees twice in last year’s World Series, and his 89-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season is the latest testament to his mastery.

His credentials hold special appeal to the Twins, who lack an established No. 1 starter and have been knocked out by the Yankees in the first round of the postseason three times in the past seven years.

So, the temptation to dangle Hicks and Ramos would be understandable.

Mauer, signed through 2018, figures to remain a catcher at least several more seasons, making Ramos expendable. The Twins also are deep in outfielders — right fielder Michael Cuddyer is under control through 2011, left fielder Delmon Young through ’12, center fielder Denard Span potentially through ‘15. Ben Revere, the Twins’ top outfield prospect after Hicks, is No. 5 on the team’s overall list according to Baseball America.

Hicks, though, might be better than all of them. And he would be ready at about the time that some of the above contracts were expiring.

The Twins easily could regret trading Hicks if he became a star and the team failed to win the World Series with Lee. Getting two high picks back would help, but the Twins would not even be guaranteed a first rounder.

This would be the reverse of the kind of trade the Twins used to make, the classic veteran for-prospects gamble. Moving Hicks would be a different type of gamble, but Lee, presuming he stays healthy, is one of the game’s surest things.

The Twins have surprised us plenty in recent months with their newfound aggressiveness and willingness to spend.

A bold trade for Lee might simply be the logical next step — and the riskiest move of all.

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