The Phillies may have lost Aaron Rowand after he signed a 5-year deal with the San Francisco Giants, but they haven't lost sleep or focus on where their offseason priorities lie.

Improving the pitching.

That's been the the Phillies' mantra since season's end. While the Phillies contest that the pickings are slim due to a mediocre free-agent pool, they know they have to bolster their staff if they have any chance to successfully defend their National League East title.

A team source said yesterday that the Phils could be interested in righthander Akinori Otsuka, who was not offered a contract by the Texas Rangers before Wednesday night's deadline.

Otsuka, 35, has 39 saves and 2.44 ERA over his 4 years in the majors. He opened the 2007 season as the Rangers' closer after tallying 32 saves with a 2.11 ERA in '06. But he wound up on the disabled list in mid-July and missed the second half of the season with right forearm inflammation. Rangers officials reported that he's had good rehab reports this winter.

He pitched 7 years in his native Japan before coming to the United States. Otsuka, who has a mid-90s fastball, signed a 3-year contract with the Padres before the 2004 season and was traded to the Rangers - along with current Phillie Adam Eaton - before the 2006 season.

Despite their need to improve on third base, the source also said the Phils have no interest in Padres third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who was nontendered by San Diego prior to Wednesday's deadline. Ensberg, acquired by the Padres from Houston in July, hit .230 with 12 home runs and 39 RBI last season.


The Phillies are expected to join the several teams who will travel to watch free-agent righthander

Kris Benson

throw next week in Atlanta. Benson, who is 68-73 in his career with a 4.34 ERA, is expected to be ready by spring training after missing the entire 2007 season following shoulder surgery . . . The Phillies avoided arbitration with recently acquired outfielder

Chris Snelling

yesterday. Snelling, acquired from the Tampa Bay last month for cash, agreed to a 1-year contract worth $450,000 with performance bonuses. *