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Phillies - Rowand not out of picture

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Aaron Rowand would like a 5-year contract. And who can blame him? Then again, there are a lot of people who would like to own a Rolls Royce, date a supermodel or become a movie star.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Aaron Rowand would like a 5-year contract. And who can blame him? Then again, there are a lot of people who would like to own a Rolls Royce, date a supermodel or become a movie star.

More often than not, free-agent ballplayers coming off strong seasons get what they want, though. And with several teams still hoping to upgrade in centerfield as the annual winter meetings swung into action at the massive Opryland Complex yesterday, it seems unlikely that Rowand will have to lower his sights. That's why it has been widely assumed that the Phillies will have to do without the grit that he brings to the clubhouse, not to mention his career-year offensive production.

Still . . .

The Dodgers reportedly have said they won't offer 5 years for the 30-year-old with the headfirst style of play. The Chicago White Sox are also said to be balking at that sort of commitment.

The Phillies, meanwhile, are believed to be willing to overpay for a 3-year deal. And there is some thought that, all things being equal, he'd like to return.

So the intriguing question arises: Is the market for Rowand coming back just enough so that a compromise is possible?

"I hear the same stuff you do," general manager Pat Gillick shrugged. "I really don't know. There's a possibility. We'd like to have him back. He's good for our club and good for the fans. [Assistant general manager] Ruben [Amaro Jr.] has had a lot of conversations with [agent] Craig Landis."

The Phillies offered Rowand arbitration on Saturday, meaning they'll get two compensatory draft picks if he signs elsewhere. He has until Friday to accept or reject the process if he's still unsigned by then.

Gillick continued to say that his primary focus at the moment is to add pitching. And while he offered no details of how he hopes to accomplish that, he said he's "optimistic" about acquiring a starter or a reliever - or even both - before he leaves town on Thursday afternoon.

"I can't say it's a sure thing," he warned, declining to specify whether a free-agent signing or a trade was more likely.

While the word on the baseball grapevine is that the Seattle Mariners are the front-runners for righthander Hiroki Kuroda, of Japan's Hiroshima Carp, reportedly increasing their offer to $44 million for 4 years, the Phillies haven't completely given up on signing the star Japanese free agent. The Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Royals are also thought to have serious interest.

Kuroda is expected to make his decision sometime next week.

Gillick said he wasn't disappointed that free-agent lefthander Randy Wolf, coming off shoulder surgery, chose to sign with the Padres, but his reaction indicated that the rejection stung a little more than he cared to let on.

"Maybe it's a blessing in disguise," he said. "We went after him a couple times, last year and this year. It's pretty evident he doesn't want to be here. And if somebody doesn't want to play for our team, maybe it's for the best."

Prior to last season, Wolf signed with the Dodgers. In both cases, it's believed the Phillies offered him more guaranteed money.

So what pitchers could interest the Phillies? Gillick indicated he's not excited about other pitchers (Kris Benson, Jason Jennings, Bartolo Colon) who are also coming off injuries. "Probably Wolf was at the top of that group," he said.

Gillick repeated that the Phillies have no interest in Jon Lieber and that while talks with free agent Kyle Lohse continue, he's still looking for a big score (at least $50 million for 5 years). That leaves the Phillies out.

Righthander Adam Eaton, who ended the season with some shoulder discomfort, isn't expected to need surgery. "I'd say he's a question mark," Gillick said.

It was a year ago this week, in Orlando, that the Phillies got Freddy Garcia from the White Sox. That gave them, on paper, six solid starters and triggered Jimmy Rollins' now-famous we're-the-team-to-beat declaration.

It didn't turn out quite the way the Phillies hoped. Garcia appeared to have shoulder woes from the beginning of spring training and won one game. Lieber opened the season on the disabled list with an oblique strain and then tore a tendon in his right foot in June, ending his season. And Eaton had a 6.29 earned run average.

So it remains to be seen whether Gillick can conjure up another pitcher before he departs Nashville who will spark the same sort of optimism. *