NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The defending National League East champion Phillies - and doesn't that

still

have an unfamiliar ring to it? - have spent the last 3 days doing some comparison shopping for pitching.

They openly admit that they would still like to be able to answer to that title, or maybe even a loftier one, at this time next year. And that a dandy way to improve their chances would be to add at least one dependable starter and a reliable reliever before Opening Day.

It sure doesn't look as if it's going to happen before general manager Pat Gillick and his entourage check out of the massive Opryland complex this afternoon.

In fact, the bigger question now seems to be whether it will happen at all. The fact that too many teams are chasing too few pitchers is having the predictable impact of escalating the coat-of-the-arms race.

"I don't want to pay for a Cadillac if I'm getting a Ford Fusion," is the way assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle put it toward the end of another frustrating day.

How crazy is it? It's so crazy that when the Phillies yesterday expressed a willingness to sign lefthander Glendon Rusch, 33, to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training, they were told that unless they could guarantee a spot in the rotation, he wasn't interested.

Rusch was 3-8 with a 7.46 earned run average when a life-threatening blood clot in his lung ended his 2006 season. He was released by the Cubs at the end of the year and sat out all last season.

How crazy is it? It's so crazy that righthander Kris Benson missed all of last season with a torn rotator cuff and was released by the Orioles at the end of the year. When he throws for interested teams on Dec. 17 as many as a dozen clubs, the Phils included, might show up to check him out.

One bubble that popped was Japanese righthander Hiroki Kuroda. "We're out," Gillick said, adding that a difference of opinion on his value led to a parting of ways yesterday morning. The Seattle Mariners are believed to have offered at least $44 million over 4 years, with the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Royals still in the running.

All this stands in stark contrast to manager Charlie Manuel's media availability yesterday morning that in some ways was a 30-minute plea for pitching help.

"We need pitching," he said at the outset of the question-and-answer period.

Later, he elaborated: "We need one more good piece [in the bullpen] and we need a couple of guys that can go a couple of innings in the middle of the game and we need a starter. We need at last one starter, and to me that's the key to us winning."

Asked to compare his rotation now to what it was during the season, he didn't hesitate. "Let's see, [Kyle] Lohse is a free agent and [Adam] Eaton is hurt and Freddy Garcia is gone," he said.

At another point he admitted to a concern about the depth of the rotation. You see where he was going with this?

While the prospect of reinforcements seems bleak at the moment, Gillick refused to concede that the manager is going to have to make do with what's on hand.

"I wouldn't say it's going to be easy, but it's not insurmountable," he said. "We'll keep plugging away and keep every possible avenue."

So far, though, the Phillies keep finding themselves in situations where they would have to spend a lot of money or give up multiple prospects for pitchers who might be no better options than some who are already in the system.

Among those who the Phillies might end up counting on before the 2008 season is over are Scott Mathieson, Joe Bisenius, Fabio Castro, J.A. Happ, Josh Outman and Andrew Carpenter.

Iguchi in limbo

The Phillies twice talked to Rocky Hall, agent for free agent Tadahito Iguchi, yesterday. But they have apparently made no significant progress toward an agreement that would bring the second baseman back to play third base.

According to Hall, Iguchi would prefer to play on the West Coast and would rather remain at second. But those options might not be open to him, especially on a long-term contract. The Phillies are believed to be willing to offer him a 3-year deal.

The other complication is that if Iguchi decides he wants to sign with the Phillies to play third, he would have to get a waiver from the rule that prohibits released players from returning to the teams that let them go until May 15.

The Phillies had no choice. That was a provision of the contract he originally signed after he left Japan to join the Chicago White Sox. Now they would have to reach a preliminary agreement then have the Major League Baseball Players Association petition MLB to grant an exemption on the grounds that the rule wasn't intended to apply to veterans of the Japanese leagues.

Mateo is out

The Phillies took a lot of heat for acquiring righthanded reliever Julio Mateo from the Mariners at the trading deadline last July 31 because he had been arrested earlier in the year for allegedly beating his wife in a New York hotel room.

That case is still in the courts but, in the meantime, Mateo was quietly released yesterday. There are some indications that the Phillies weren't fully aware of how serious his legal issues were when they made the deal.

Phillers

Assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. again talked yesterday with Craig Landis, agent for free-agent centerfielder Aaron Rowand, but optimism earlier in the week that Rowand's desire to return might give him a reason to work with the team seems to be fading. Pat Gillick said he now views re-signing the hard-nosed team leader as a "longshot." Said another club official, "He just wants the money" . . . The winter meetings conclude today with the Rule 5 draft. Teams may pay $50,000 to select players who are left unprotected on 40-man rosters. They must then keep that player on the active big-league roster for the entire season or offer him back for $25,000. It's possible that the Phillies will sit out the process unless they can find a way to move up. *