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Friday, February 2, 2007
Morneau, Punto, Ford agree with Twins

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins crossed four contracts off their winter to-do list Friday. They still, however, have millions of more dollars to dole out before spring training.

AL MVP Justin Morneau agreed to a $4.5 million, one-year contract with the Twins, who also settled their salary arbitration cases with third baseman Nick Punto, reliever Juan Rincon and outfielder Lew Ford.

Punto agreed to a $4.2 million, two-year contract, Rincon received a $2 million, one-year deal and Ford reached a $985,000, one-year agreement.

But two important players remain scheduled for hearings this month: AL batting champion Joe Mauer and right fielder and cleanup hitter Michael Cuddyer. Mauer asked for $4.5 million and was offered $3.3 million. Cuddyer asked for $4.25 million and was offered $3 million.

Once contracts are finalized for the handful of players without enough service time to be arbitration-eligible, the payroll will most likely push past $70 million. That's up from the $63.8 million figure the Twins started last season with.

General manager Terry Ryan realized there would be an increase, but he indicated Friday the payroll will be higher than he originally planned.

"I think it's apparent that with these arbitration things and the way the market has gone, it's going to jump," said Ryan, who could also pursue contract extensions with Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana and All-Star closer Joe Nathan to prevent losing them to free agency after the 2008 season.

Morneau and Mauer can't be free agents until after the 2009 season, but long-term deals with them -- as well as Cuddyer -- are also possibilities. That was explored with Morneau, but ultimately tabled.

"We gave it a good amount of a go at it," Ryan said, adding: "It just didn't come together on a finality that both sides were willing to sign off on."

Morneau, a 25-year-old first baseman, hit .321 last year with 34 homers and 130 RBIs and won the MVP award by 14 points over New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Morneau's agreement was at the midpoint between the $5 million he had asked for and the $4 million the team offered to the player who hit more homers than any Twin in a season since 1987.

Rincon went 3-1 with a 2.91 ERA in 74 1-3 innings as Minnesota's primary setup man to closer Joe Nathan. Rincon, who has appeared in at least 75 games in each of the last three seasons, also settled at the midpoint after asking for $2.4 million and receiving an offer of $1.6 million from the team.

Punto, who hit .290 with 47 RBIs and 17 steals for the AL Central champions in his first year as a full-time starter, will get $1.8 million this season and $2.4 million in 2008. He had asked for $2.1 million and had been offered $1.6 million.

Ford was a backup last year who hit .226 with 18 RBIs in 234 at-bats. In addition to his base salary, he could earn $65,000 in performance bonuses: $15,000 for 300 plate appearances, and $25,000 each for 400 and 450 plate appearances. Ford had asked for $1.3 million and had been offered $800,000.