NEW YORK -- Jeff Kent signed with Houston on Wednesday, the New York Yankees neared agreement with Hideki Matsui, and Boston and Texas made pickups as more free agents decided where they'll play next year.
Greg Maddux, among 18 players facing a midnight EST Thursday deadline to accept salary arbitration offers, still wasn't hinting on his decision.
Meanwhile, Montreal's talks to trade pitcher Bartolo Colon to the New York Yankees or Boston appeared to be at a standstill.
Cuban right-hander Jose Contreras changed the makeup of the market when he finally was declared a free agent, and Baltimore said its talks with catcher Ivan Rodriguez had reached an impasse.
Kent's $18.2 million, two-year contract with Houston was the biggest deal of the day. Boston gave Mike Timlin a $1.85 million, one-year contract to join its bullpen, and Damian Jackson a $625,000, one-year deal to back up its starting infielders. Texas gave Doug Glanville $1 million and the chance to become a starter in the outfield.
The Yankees finalized their $1.5 million, one-year deal with backup infielder Todd Zeile, and St. Louis agreed to minor league contracts with right-hander Cal Eldred and left-hander Lance Painter. Cleveland agreed to minor league contracts with right-hander Mike Thurman, catcher Tim Laker and infielder Casey Blake.
Kent's deal with the Astros was a surprise. He had been offered arbitration by San Francisco, but decided to leave the Giants, partly because of Dusty Baker's decision to leave to become manager of the Chicago Cubs.
''This was not in our plan, was not in our budget and was not on our radar screen,'' Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. ''I would dare say, after Nolan Ryan, this is the most significant free-agent acquisition that this franchise has ever acquired.''
Kent, who spent the last six seasons with the Giants, said he fell in love with Texas when his Cal-Berkeley team visited Austin in the 1980s. Kent lives in the state capital and has a ranch south of San Antonio.
Before last weekend's winter meetings in Nashville, he quietly told agent Jeff Klein that the Astros were his top choice.
''I sent him to Tennessee and said, 'Go get me to Houston, will you?''' Kent said. He called his decision a ''no-brainer,'' citing the departure of Baker as decreasing the attractiveness of the Giants.
Kent, 34, won the MVP award two years ago and hit .313 last season with 37 homers and 108 RBIs, helping San Francisco win its first NL pennant since 1989. His arrival means four-time Gold Glove second baseman Craig Biggio must move to the outfield.
''If it were someone other than Craig, it's going to be a problem,'' said Berkman, who had to move from first base to the outfield to get into the lineup. ''Because of the type of person Bidge is, I just feel like (his outfield play) will be smooth by the time we're done with spring training.''
The Yankees, who had opened talks with free agent Cliff Floyd in an effort to gain bargaining power, made progress in talks Wednesday with Matsui's agent, Arn Tellem, and neared agreement on a three-year deal worth about $21 million, according to a lawyer familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The sides agreed on the basic structure of Matsui's salaries over the three years, the lawyer said, but had not agreed on possible performance bonuses or whether to include an option for a fourth season.
Matsui, a three-time MVP of Japan's Central League for the Yomiuri Giants, would be a corner outfielder for the Yankees.
Maddux, a four-time Cy Young Award winner, must make his decision following the Braves' acquisitions of Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz in trades and signing of free agent Paul Byrd. If he accepts arbitration, he could break the record one-year contract of $12 million set by David Cone in 2000.
''We're still weighing through this,'' agent Scott Boras said Wednesday. ''Obviously, he'll make a decision Thursday one way or another as far as the issue of arbitration.''
Contreras, who defected from Cuba in October, was contacted by the Yankees immediately after he was declared a free agent by the commissioner's office. The right-hander, considered a top pitcher by scouts, established residency last week in Nicaragua, which means he isn't subject to the baseball draft.
''My desire is to play baseball,'' Contreras said Wednesday. ''I would play for any team, and I am going to give my all to not let them down.''
The Yankees put their talks with Montreal for Colon off to the side. Montreal asked for pitcher Orlando Hernandez, first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera and several million dollars to pay Hernandez's salary. The Yankees refused to even make a counteroffer.
''If it makes sense, we're ready to rock 'n' roll, but it has to make sense in our context,'' said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who is trying to cut payroll. ''It makes no sense to counter if I can't get him off where he's at.''
New York also is negotiating a one-year deal with Roger Clemens.
The Orioles submitted a contract offer to Rodriguez, a 10-time All-Star, on Tuesday night after receiving an opening proposal from agent Jeff Moorad.
''There's a huge gap to be bridged,'' Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said. ''The only solution is if we offer a lot more money, or if they accept significantly less.''
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