Around the Horn: The NL West

The San Diego Padres are still seeking a front of the rotation starter, the Arizona Diamondbacks are looking for a little payroll flexibility this year and next, the Rockies are working on one of their own with a day to spare, the Dodgers appear to be in salary limbo beyond 2004, and the Giants are collecting outfielders and biding their time until January, just like every other year.

San Diego Padres:

General Manager Kevin Towers said the first three priorities for the Padres this winter were catcher, bullpen and starting pitching.

He has acquired his catcher in Ramon Hernandez. And the bullpen is set. That couldn't be better news for the Padres starting rotation. Last year the bullpen had an ERA of 4.72, let up 64 homers, and allowed opponents to bat .268 against them.

Meanwhile, the back half of the rotation is looking good with the official signing of Ismael Valdes and Sterling Hitchcock, but where is the starter for the front half of the rotation?

Towers has said he will likely wait until next week before making any serious runs at a Greg Maddux type pitcher. Cory Lidle was in town on Thursday and received a tour of the facility. It is believed Towers will wait until the Maddux situation is over before moving in another direction.

Towers is still looking at making a run at boosting the Padres in center field.

The trade with Oakland to acquire Hernandez came at the expense of losing Mark Kotsay. And while Towers has said that either Brian Giles or Terrence Long (who also came to the Padres in the Hernandez-Kotsay deal) could play center, he is exploring other options – and those are becoming slim as the days go by.

Joe Hughes has been named the Padres' fourth strength and conditioning coach since 1996. Hughes worked the past five seasons with the Cleveland Indians minor leaguers.

Arizona Diamondbacks:

The Diamondbacks' intent to keep newly acquired first baseman Richie Sexson past 2004 could impact the rest of their roster.

The Diamondbacks have been negotiating with third baseman Shea Hillenbrand, a Phoenix-area resident. But Hillenbrand is arbitration eligible and probably will get no better than a one-year contract at about $2.5 million.

Team officials have been high on Chad Tracy, a third baseman who was the farm system's 2003 Player of the Year after batting .324 with 80 runs batted in for Triple-A Tucson with a Pacific Coast League-leading 169 hits.

Tracy went to the Dominican Republic to play for Azucareros to play the outfield, but he is considered the third baseman of the future.

The team also plans to let youngsters John Patterson, Edgar Gonzalez, Andrew Good and Oscar Villarreal compete for spots in the rotation. Each of the four players is at least two years away from being eligible for salary arbitration.

The Diamondbacks have nine players signed at about $57 million. That leaves them enough flexibility to add a veteran pitcher at the back end of their rotation or even a catcher.

But the roster will be flooded with several first and second-year players, such as pitchers Brandon Webb and Villarreal, catcher Robby Hammock and infielders Alex Cintron and Matt Kata.

None of those players is expected to earn more than $500,000 next season.

The Diamondbacks have committed $26 million to pitcher Randy Johnson and left fielder Luis Gonzalez through 2005, leaving them little room to give Sexson an extension and meet a $55 million payroll.

Colorado Rockies:

Familiar faces are returning to Coors Field.

Right-handed reliever Steve Reed re-signed with the Rockies on Dec. 7. Three days later, third baseman Vinny Castilla, after a four-year absence, decided to return. Reed and Castilla were both expansion draft picks of the Rockies.

Reed's signing came just hours before the Rockies planned to decline to offer him arbitration, which would have meant Reed couldn't return to the Rockies. Reed signed a one-year, $600,000 contract that includes a $25,000 buyout on a $625,000 option for 2005.

Castilla took a creatively financed one-year, $2.1 million deal that includes an option for 2005. Castilla will be paid $500,000 base salary in 2004 and have $1.6 million deferred, which will be paid over a 15-year period beginning in 2015.

"I never thought I would come back," Castilla said. "But I always leave my doors open. I never bad-rap nobody. I did tell (general manager Dan) O'Dowd I was mad at him, not because he traded me but because he traded me to Tampa."

General manager Dan O'Dowd said Reed's return is a statement by the pitcher. Reed and Castilla maintained their homes in the Denver area when they were playing for other teams.

"I wanted to try to make something happen so I could be at home and take my kids to school every day," said Reed, who has a $25,000 buyout on a $650,000 option for 2005. "I haven't lost perspective as to what $600,000 is worth. It's still a lot of money."

The Rockies are reopening negotiations with Jay Payton. They will not go to arbitration with him, but hope to wrap up a deal in the next day.

The Rockies dealt second-baseman utility man Mark Bellhorn and his $495,000 contract to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday for a player to be named later or cash.

LHP Joe Kennedy was acquired from Tampa Bay in a three-way trade that sent RHP Justin Speier to Toronto. The Rockies obviously are hoping that Kennedy can regain his form of 2001, when he was 7-8 for the lowly Devil Rays. Since then, he is 11-23 with a 5.41 ERA, and he lost his spot in the rotation last season. Speier, who was eligible for arbitration, will be a candidate to become the Blue Jays' closer.

Los Angeles Dodgers:

The team's payroll is another matter. After trimming $11.75 million in the Kevin Brown trade, GM Dan Evans said that money would be reinvested into improving the team's league-worst offense. The Dodgers are expected to have a payroll in the $115 million range, equaling what they spent in 2003.

But it is unlikely Evans can take on significant salary commitments beyond 2004, limiting his ability to negotiate with the elite free agents, such as Vladimir Guerrero.

The Dodgers' trade for RF Juan Encarnacion backs that up. Encarnacion, acquired from the Florida Marlins for a minor leaguer to be named, figured to make $5 million in arbitration, so the Dodgers can try to sign him by the deadline Saturday, or they can non-tender him. It sounded, however, as if they would keep him.

IF Robin Ventura signed a $1.2 million contract to return to the Dodgers in a reserve role, possibly forming part of a platoon at first base. Ventura can earn an additional $1.2 million in incentives based on reaching several plateaus for plate appearances.

The Dodgers offered arbitration to LHP Wilson Alvarez but effectively cut ties with their other free agents. OF Jeromy Burnitz, OF Brian Jordan, OF Rickey Henderson, RHP Andy Ashby, 1B Fred McGriff and INF Ron Coomer cannot re-sign with the Dodgers until May 1 at the earliest.

The Dodgers offered arbitration to RHP Paul Quantrill, who reportedly has agreed to a two-year contract with the Yankees. The Dodgers will receive a future high draft choice from the Yankees as compensation. The Dodgers also get a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds in June because Quantrill was a Type A free agent.

San Francisco Giants:

The Giants have been patient in the past when rounding out their roster, and it wouldn't be surprising if they were patient again.

Last year, they acquired Jose Cruz Jr. in January. The previous January, they signed Reggie Sanders.

Before the Cruz signing, the Giants were thinking of playing Ray Durham in center and Marquis Grissom in right. Once they got Cruz, Durham could play his normal position, second base, and Grissom could play center field.

More free agents will emerge after Dec. 20, when arbitration-eligible players who aren't tendered contracts will become free agents. At that point, the Giants could land a shortstop or right fielder. For now, Neifi Perez is at short and Jeffrey Hammonds and Michael Tucker are in right.

Who will be the closer?

Robb Nen has one year remaining at $9 million, but he's coming off three shoulder surgeries and won't be 100 percent by Opening Day. He missed all of 2003.

Tim Worrell was the closer in '03, but he signed with the Phillies. Joe Nathan, the Giants' best reliever in '03, was traded to the Twins. One option is Matt Herges, who added incentives into his contract that would boost his salary if he gets closing duties.

"We have some choices," said Sabean. "The bullpen will be one of the better ones in the league if Robb's healthy. It's the same cast minus Nathan and stronger because of Robb. We'll miss Tim's contribution. But as bullpens go, it'll still be one of the strongest and most experienced in the league."

The Giants seem bent on getting outfielders these days. They acquired OF Dustan Mohr from the Minnesota Twins for a player to be named. They already had re-signed Jeffrey Hammonds and acquired Michael Tucker.

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