Jay Bruce is only 20 years old and hasn't appeared in a Major League game, but the Cincinnati Reds have high hopes for the outfield prospect, who was named Baseball America's 2007 Minor League Player of the Year.

With Josh Hamilton moving on to Texas, the chance for Bruce to make the 2008 roster may have improved.

"I don't think it changes anything for me," Bruce told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "It doesn't drive me anymore. Obviously, it opens a spot. I guess it makes it a little more real."

Rick Sweet, who managed Bruce last season at Triple-A, calls the youngster a rare talent.

"He's special," said Sweet. "A very special player and person. He's fun to be around because he loves to play."

Sweet gushed about Bruce's talent level. "I had [Ken Griffey Jr.] his first year. I put Jay Bruce in that category," he said.

General manager Wayne Krivsky, meanwhile, also has a lot of confidence in Bruce, who will this spring be attending his first big league camp.

"You grade the tools and how they project," said Krivsky. "He can hit, hit for power, throw, run. He can play all the outfield positions. When you add in the intangibles, you've got the total package."

For his part, Bruce is excited about the chance he's being given.

"It's going to be a blast," he said.

"I'm looking forward to going in and playing my game and showing everyone what I can do."

J.R. Towles will get a chance: For the first time in almost a decade, the Houston Astros may have a new No. 1 catcher. Brad Ausmus remains on the club, but the front office is hoping rookie J.R. Towles can earn the bulk of the catching duties in 2008.

Towles started the 2007 season in Class A, rose quickly through the system and joined the Astros in September, batting .375 with 12 RBIs in 14 games. He set a club record on Sept. 20 against the Cardinals with eight RBIs, hitting his first career home run and collecting three extra-base hits. He also had at least one hit in eight of his last nine games of the season and had a seven-game hitting streak in which he hit .478 (11-for-23).

"He's wiry but strong right now," Houston general manager Ed Wade told astros.com about Towles, who is 6-foot-2 but weighs only 190 pounds. "He has a chance to be a really good player."

Wade is confident the young catcher will be able to adjust at the plate once opposing pitchers adjust to him. What makes Wade confident about this is Towles' bat speed, something the GM has marveled at.

He can wear out third basemen and the left-field wall," Wade said.

A possible drawback for Towles is his lack of experience. He has only 14 games with Houston. That is why the Astros thought it was important to bring back Ausmus, who is a veteran of 15 seasons. The three-time Gold Glove winner will be counted on to mentor and guide Towles.

"As a receiver, he's very good," Ausmus said. "He's probably one of the better receivers in the league. But just arriving to the big leagues, there's some things he has to learn. It comes with experience, and he doesn't have experience. Hopefully, he'll speed up the learning process -- in theory, with me around."

Ayala has hunting scare: Luis Ayala was accidentally hit in the left arm with a shotgun pellet while hunting over the holidays. The pellet remains in his arm, but doctors believe he will be ready to pitch in Spring Training.

"He's very lucky," Joe Longo, Ayala's agent, told the Washington Post. "The doctors told him, 'Luis, a couple inches difference, and we would have had trouble.'"

Ayala visited Lewis Yocum, who had the pitcher see Steven Shin, an upper arm specialist. The two advised Ayala to leave the pellet where it was.

"That's what they typically do," Longo said. "I guess it's more trouble than it's worth to take it out. They can do that later on. Now, he just needs to get through the trauma."

Ayala rebounded from a missed 2006 season to post a 3.19 ERA and a 2-2 record in 44 appearances last year. The Nationals again hope for a big contribution from Ayala out of the 'pen, and his agent has a request for his client.

"I said, 'Luis, that's it. No more hunting,' " Longo said.

Nomo strikes Minor League deal with Royals: Despite not having pitched in the Major Leagues since a stint with the Rays in 2005, Hideo Nomo has signed a Minor League deal with the Kansas City Royals with an invitation to the Major League camp.

"He's obviously been a very successful pitcher and we're going to give him an opportunity to compete for a job out of Spring Training," general manager Dayton Moore told MLB.com.

Nomo joins fellow Japanese pitcher Yasuhiko Yabuta with the Royals, and new manager Trey Hillman says that although he's not seen Nomo pitch recently, he knows that Nomo will come in and give the team his best.

"But there's obviously still a passion there," said Hillman. "He's the winningest pitcher from the other side of the world, so I'm very anxious to see him and we'll take a serious look at him. The other thing that it gives us is a little camaraderie for Yabuta and that's a wonderful thing."

What made Nomo succeed in the past, added Hillman, should give him a chance to continue that success.

"He's got a lot of deceptiveness to his delivery," he said. "The thing that was so earth-shattering with him when he was with the Dodgers was his split. It was widely known as the nastiest split in all of baseball."

Miles agrees to latest offer from Cardinals: When the St. Louis Cardinals non-tendered Aaron Miles, they knew it might not be easy to replace him. With 414 at-bats last season, Miles was third on the team and often stepped into unfamiliar roles (shortstop, third base and even a couple of pitching opportunities) and was invaluable to the club.

Late last week, the Cardinals and Miles reached the conclusion that they remained a good fit for one another and agreed to a new contract.

"When I've played well, I've played a lot," Miles told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "There's never been a time when I've felt buried. I like the way I'm used by [manager Tony La Russa] even when I don't start. It's a good feeling to know the manager I'm playing for has faith in me."

General manager John Mozeliak likes the versatility and the "known factor" that Miles brings to the team.

"The way we are set up now, we're fully protected in the infield," he said. "You look at the need we had, and there's a comfort level with Miles. ... He gives us added flexibility."

Miles shares that comfort level with the Cardinals.

"I think what I've done here is the player I am," Miles said. "I'm not a guy who is going to put up the eye-popping numbers, but they can feel comfortable having me in the lineup. They know how I compete. ... I do like the role I have here -- that if I'm not the guy who is starting, I know I'm going to play."

Chicago is Swisher's kind of town: Nick Swisher concedes he wasn't too thrilled when he was traded from the Oakland A's to the Chicago White Sox but now says he's excited to join his new team.

"At first, it was tough to swallow," Swisher told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I felt like it was a dream. But I'm coming to the best city in sports. I'm a huge Chicago Bears fan. Plus, I'm coming to a great organization that wants to win and that wants me. Just about now the news is setting in, and I'm getting really excited about it."

With it's possible Swisher might find himself playing center field, he will continue to adapt to what is a somewhat unfamiliar position.

"At first [in Oakland last year], I was like, 'I don't want to play center field,'" said Swisher, who during his four-year career has played 61 games in center, 59 of them in '07. "But the more I got out there, the more comfortable I got. [A's center fielder] Mark Kotsay taught me a lot of things -- about playing angles, for example. I'm not going to pretend I'm the fastest guy in the world, but I think I'm very capable of playing center."

As he prepares for a new chapter in his career, he knows he is going to miss his old teammates, too.

"The one thing, the only thing, you're going to take with you is your relationships," Swisher said. "It's bittersweet to leave them and leave the fans."

Saltalamacchia slotted as a catcher only for Rangers: The Texas Rangers aren't sure who their Opening Day catcher will be. It could be Gerald Laird or Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Whoever it is, the team will be happy.

"For us, it's a strength," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels told texasrangers.com. "Some people may look at it as a logjam or that we have decisions to make, but I look at it as you can't have enough of a good thing."

The two catchers will head into Spring Training knowing they will battle for the starting position. Although he played at first base as well last season, the Rangers plans to have Saltalamacchia remain at catcher this season.

"There were a couple of things at play there," Daniels said. "One is his passion, that's what he wants to do. That's also where his value is greatest. He's a switch-hitting catcher who is capable of hitting 20 to 25 home runs. That kind of offensive production is more valuable behind the plate rather than first base. Not many teams have that. It could be a competitive advantage for us."

Laird has been the No. 1 catcher for the Rangers but the acquisition of the highly-rated Saltalamacchia (combined with Laird's batting average dropping from .296 in 2006 to .224 last year) set up a competition between the pair this spring.

"He [Laird] just needs to be more consistent than anything else," Daniels said. "Gerald has shown flashes of what he can do on a baseball field and one of the areas he has been consistent is his throwing. But there are other areas: consistent at-bats and working with the pitching staff. We want him to be a more well-rounded catcher. He's got the ability, but we just want to put it all together."

Despite acquiring the high-profile prospect in the trade that sent Mark Teixeira to the Braves last July, Daniels is adamant that the team has not decided on a No. 1 at the catcher position.

"People have formed opinions but we want those guys to come in and compete," Daniels said. "That's the message that both Gerald and Jarrod got at the end of last year. There are still a number of ways to go, but they are two athletic players who can both impact the game on both sides -- offensively and defensively -- and they are both young. We don't have to make that decision this winter."

Kendall to shore up Brewers' catching: The Brewers are hoping Jason Kendall can help turn their system's recent weakness at catching into a strength.

"It's a position of weakness, there's no doubt about it," Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash told brewers.com. "We're hopeful of some guys coming along, but we don't have anybody at the upper levels [of the Minor League system] right now that you're going to say is going to be a solid, everyday guy."

Kendall will be expected to be that solid, everyday guy this season, despite coming off a down season in 2007. Splitting time between Oakland and the Cubs, Kendall hit .242 with three home runs and 41 RBIs in 137 games. But for his career, Kendall is a .297 hitter with a .375 on-base percentage.

"I had a bad year last year," Kendall said, referring to both his defense and offense. "I'm ready to bounce back, and I have a lot to prove to myself. ... I know I can. I don't think 33 is old. I'm going to play the game the way I've always played. I am more excited about this opportunity than any in my career. It's just a good, young group of guys."

A healthy Clement is a starting Clement: When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Matt Clement last week, they did so knowing there was a risk involved. Clement, after all, hasn't thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues since 2006 due to shoulder surgery.

"Coming off of a surgery at the end of '06, there's obviously medical risk in any type of decision like this," general manager John Mozeliak told the MLB.com. "But based on how he was able to pitch at the end of last season, albeit in instructional league games, and then going through the physical with Dr. [George] Paletta today, we felt very confident that he's in a good place and he should be ready to go in Spring Training."

As he returns to the National League for the first time since his stint with the Cubs from 2002-2004 (a span in which he won 35 games, posted an ERA of 3.80 and struck out 576 batters in 587 2/3 innings), Clement acknowledges that he's excited to be a member of the Cardinals.

"Both times I've been a free agent, St. Louis has been high on my list, just from my experience from when I played there with other teams in the National League," he said. "And it's been said a thousand times about how the fans are so good and respectful and love their team. As a player, it's not hype, it's truth."

If healthy -- and they believe he is -- the Cardinals have no doubt that Clement can help them in 2008.

"If health is there, he'll be one of our starters," said Mozeliak. "He's going to be given every opportunity to do that. I think if you look at his overall résumé and what he's accomplished, it's impressive."

Bard ready for another full schedule as catcher: While some teams are still scrambling to find a starting catcher, the San Diego Padres have two players who can start for many teams in Josh Bard and Michael Barrett.

"My goal going into the season was to get myself ready to catch 130 games," Bard told padres.com about his mindset entering last year. "My body feels great. I have worked to get to the point where I can catch every day. I make no bones about the fact that I want to be out there every day."

Bard held up for the most part, starting the final 11 games of the regular season as well as the one-game playoff against the Rockies and hit .372 during that stretch. Despite battling a groin injury and a wrist injury that required offseason surgery, Bard hit .285 with five home runs and 51 RBIs in 118 games. After the All-Star break, he batted .316 and .346 with runners on base.

Bard said his numbers improved after the break as his wrist started to feel better, especially in September.

"I've had some wrist issues, so I've slowed down some of the work stuff," Bard said. "I've tried to just simplify things. It's frustrating at times because when I'm usually swinging the bat well is when I keep things the simplest.

"Sometimes when you're not playing ... idle time can be a bad thing. You watch video, you look at stuff, take a bunch of swings. Sometimes you can dig yourself a hole."

-- Red Line Editorial