Darin Erstad, a two-time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glove winner during 12 seasons in the American League, will bring his hard-nosed playing style to the Houston Astros this season.

Erstad spent his first 11 MLB seasons with the Angels before hitting .248 with four home runs and 32 RBIs in 87 games last season for the White Sox. He signed a one-year deal with the Astros.

The 33-year-old North Dakotan provides a left-handed bat off the bench and can play all three outfield positions, as well as first base.

"Darin is one of the prototypical professional baseball players," Astros general manager Ed Wade told the Houston Chronicle. "He's made a career out of playing the game the right way. Darin is a veteran who brings a lot to our club and will really help us."

For his career, Erstad is a .284 hitter with 118 home runs and 657 RBIs. His best season came in 2000, when he hit .355 with an AL-leading 240 hits, 25 home runs and 100 RBIs while batting leadoff for the Angels.

Erstad is also the only player in Major League history to win a Gold Glove as both an infielder and outfielder. He claimed the Gold Glove as a first baseman in 2004 and as a center fielder in both 2000 and 2002.

Morrow competing for spot in M's rotation: Brandon Morrow, the fifth pick in the 2006 Draft, spent most of 2007 with the Mariners as a reliever. However, Morrow will be in the mix for the fifth starter's job on the team next season.

Morrow pitched this winter in Venezuela, building up arm strength for a potential move to the rotation.

"I am very high on Brandon Morrow," manager John McLaren told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "The reports on Brandon are very good. He's been able to do what we've wanted him to do."

Horacio Ramirez and Ryan Rowand-Smith will battle Morrow for the starting job.

"If we start the season with what we have now, I'm confident we'll be competitive," McLaren said. "I'm very happy with the addition of (Carlos) Silva, who's an innings-eater who throws strikes. When you throw in (Cha Seung) Baek and (Ryan) Feierabend, we've got some options and some versatility going into the spring."

Prior returns home, signs with Padres: Right-handed pitcher Mark Prior hopes to revive his career with the San Diego Padres after signing a one-year deal with the club last week. Prior missed all of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery and has battled injuries since 2003.

"For some unfortunate reason, I haven't been healthy since '03," Prior told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "But I feel things have been taken care of.

"I know there will be some ups and downs. It takes time to get that confidence and swagger back. But I think I'll be back to where I want to be."

After not being tendered by the Chicago Cubs and thus becoming a free agent, Prior was contacted by 13 teams about his services. Houston, St. Louis, the Mets and Texas aggressively pursued Prior before he decided to sign with the Padres, who had an advantage over the rest of the teams.

Prior graduated from University of San Diego High School and lives in San Diego year-round. Prior said he also liked the idea of pitching in pitcher-friendly Petco Park and with former Cubs teammate Greg Maddux, as well as with current manager Bud Black, who was a former pitching coach.

"Bud Black was one of the reasons why San Diego was such a good fit," said Prior. "Playing for someone who understands what a pitcher goes through ... that was another aspect that was definitely appealing."

Prior is not expected to be ready to pitch until the middle of May, at the earliest. However, he is throwing on flat ground without pain and expects to throw from the mound in late January.

"I'm really excited," he said. "There are so many things right about coming home and pitching for the Padres. It's going to be a great summer. I'm really confident that I'm going to get back on my feet and re-establish myself as a competitor in this league."

Wood ready to lock up third base spot: After spending most of his career in the Minors, Jason Wood was with the Marlins for most of the 2007 season. But as the backup to Miguel Cabrera, Wood saw limited playing time. He played just 18 innings over seven games at the hot corner and actually saw more time at first base. But with the trade of Cabrera, Wood will have a shot at the starting job this season.

"[Third] is basically where I grew up playing," Wood told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "To hear my name being mentioned just thrills me to death. Hopefully, I'll be given that opportunity to compete for that spot."

The 38-year-old has spent parts of four years in the Majors, the last two seasons with the Marlins and in 1998 and 1999 with the Tigers. His main competition for the job will come from recently signed ex-Pirate Jose Castillo.

"I'll be ready and I'm in shape, and I'm willing to take that challenge," Wood said. "I pretty much knew what my role was last year from the get-go, and I was comfortable with it. ... I saw [Castillo] come up as a shortstop in the Pirates organization when I was over there. I'm ready to take on anybody."

Astros ink newcomer Villarreal to two-year deal: After trading for reliever Oscar Villarreal earlier this offseason from the Atlanta Braves, the Houston Astros have locked up the right-hander by signing him to a two-year contract through 2009 with a club option for 2010.

The Astros traded outfielder Josh Anderson for Villarreal on Nov. 16 and are counting on him to be a key member of the bullpen. Last season for the Braves, Villarreal was 2-2 with a 4.24 ERA in 51 games.

"When we made the trade with Atlanta for Oscar, we knew we were getting a very versatile pitcher," Astros general manager Ed Wade told the Houston Chronicle. "He's been a quality reliever and also has some starting experience. It made a lot of sense for us to lock him up beyond 2008."

For his career, Villarreal is 23-12 with a 3.71 ERA in 223 appearances. He pitched for the Braves in 2006 and 2007 after spending the first three years of his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2003, he pitched in a National League rookie-record 86 games and finished 10-7 with a 2.57 ERA.