Inspired by his 8-year-old daughter Naylenis, Jose Contreras is ahead of schedule in his recovery from a torn Achilles' tendon that he suffered last August.

Contreras' rehab was initially expected to take nine months to a year, but the veteran right-hander is now aiming to return on time to begin the regular season with the White Sox.

The 37-year-old Contreras, who had been a star with the Cuban national team prior to his defection in October 2002, found motivation to get back to the mound from his daughter.

"She started crying because she thought I wouldn't be able to play anymore," Contreras told the Chicago Sun-Times through interpreter Omer Munoz, a Sox staffer. "I thought, 'I want to make her proud and come back sooner.'"

He also couldn't stand to watch his team play last October without him.

"I felt like they were going to war, and I couldn't do anything to help," Contreras said. "I wanted to help, but I couldn't. I was just sitting there. That was one of the worst feelings ever. And that was one of the big things that motivated me to work harder and come back sooner than people thought I could."

Mays helps Griffey Jr. decide to return to Seattle: Despite speculation that he was going to Atlanta, Ken Griffey Jr. decided to return to his roots and agreed to a one-year contract with the Mariners. Hall of Famer Willie Mays played a role in bringing him back to Seattle.

"I called Willie, and he acted like an old friend,'" Mariners team president Chuck Armstrong told the Seattle Times. "He talked about the importance of coming back and asked if it would be an imposition if he called Junior and talked about it.

"I said, 'Willie, you're probably the greatest player ever, and the reason Junior wore No. 24.' I gave him Junior's phone number.'"

Bell brings confidence to new role as closer: Heath Bell has assumed the role of closer for the Padres, and he knows the role is completely different than that of setup man. Bell, who lost 25 pounds this offseason, enters the season with two career saves.

"In the eighth inning, if you don't have it, somebody's going to come behind you," Bell told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "In the ninth inning, there's nobody warming up behind you. It's all you. It's all on your shoulders.

"I like that challenge. I like being in those situations. I like coming in with the bases loaded, no out, in a tie game. ... Fear -- I like that emotion."

Smith contending for outfield spot: Seth Smith will be competing for a starting spot in left field for the Rockies. He's coming off a season in which he hit .275 in 50 games after the All-Star break.

"It's all I can ask for," Smith told the Rocky Mountain News. "If I go out and play the way I know how to play, hopefully, things will work out for me."

Francoeur avoids arbitration with one-year deal: The Braves and Jeff Francoeur agreed to a one-year contract and avoided arbitration.

"I'm just so glad to get this over with," Francoeur, who would've flown to Phoenix late Thursday morning for a Friday hearing if there hadn't been a settlement, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Last night, about 12 o'clock,, I got a phone call and it was done. I was so excited, I couldn't go to bed.

"Everyone did a great job of getting this done with, so I don't have to go out there. I'm happy, excited and looking forward to this season. I don't have to look at last year now. It's done."

Furcal hopes to see Manny back in lineup: The Dodgers re-signed Rafael Furcal to be a sparkplug at the top of the lineup. Now Furcal is hoping the club can do the same with Manny Ramirez.

"Everybody in the world wants to hit in front of Manny, because you want to jump on base and see Manny hitting with runners in scoring position," Furcal told the Los Angeles Times.

"I think the pitcher's got a headache when you have runners on second and first and Manny Ramirez is coming to bat."

Lincecum, Zito get rave reviews in live debut: The Giants took a step in their Spring Training regimen by having pitchers throw live batting practice to hitters. Among the first pitchers to throw were Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito, both of whom drew raves.

"Lincecum threw great, and Zito was amazing," Bengie Molina, who caught both, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Zito had control. Both of them, their control was amazing for the first time out."

Morales ready to become starter: Kendry Morales is preparing to be a starter for the first time in his Major League career with the Angels.

"I feel like I'm ready," Morales told the Los Angeles Times. "The time I spent in winter ball, the time I've been up here, has prepared me enough. Becoming a productive everyday player is within reach if I work hard."

"We're not going to focus on how many home runs or RBIs he's going to have," manager Mike Scioscia said, "but I think he has the potential to open some eyes in 600 at-bats."

Kinney ready to make an impact: After missing almost all of last season, Josh Kinney's top priority is staying on the field rather than winning a job as the Cardinals closer.

"I'm really just focusing on being healthy," Kinney told MLB.com. "I'm not going to get into that whole thing about who's going to pitch where, in what role. You let Spring Training have its toll. And even then, you've got to get into the season and see who's doing what before roles can be established."

Thome plans for at least two more years: Jim Thome isn't sure how much longer he's going to play, but he doesn't think this will be his last season.

"Without looking into the crystal ball, I would like to play at least two more years," Thome told MLB.com. "Look, the bottom line is I enjoy the game. I want to continue to play the game and perform at a good level. Without looking ahead, just enjoy it. This should be a fun time. It's good to see the guys. Being with them is the most important thing."

Schumaker shoots for starting job at second base: Skip Schumaker is giving his best effort at converting to second base, which he hasn't played since college.

"I hope to start," Schumaker told MLB.com. "That's the No. 1 thing. I wouldn't be doing this, putting all this work in if I didn't feel like there was a chance to do it every day and to win a spot. I know it's going to take a lot of time. I'm working the kinks out every single day. It's not an easy thing to do. If I take every day as a working day to move forward, then I'm going in the right direction, but I wouldn't be doing all this if I didn't think I had a shot."

Hall looked to for experience: Toby Hall, the only veteran catcher in the Astros' camp, has stopped throwing pending results of an MRI on his right shoulder.

"He's the only real veteran [catcher] we have here," manager Cecil Cooper told the Houston Chronicle. "So there is a concern. We have to wait and see what the MRI reveals. We'd love to have him be with us this year. We have some kids who can actually do it if it doesn't pan out for Toby. We're hoping he's going to be fine and be able to get some work in here maybe later on in the spring and really have an opportunity to be with us."

Matsui's camp won't include time in the outfield: Hideki Matsui, coming off his second knee surgery in the past 15 months, will not play in the outfield during any exhibition games.

"The important thing is that he comes out of Spring Training healthy," manager Joe Girardi told the New York Daily News. "We feel it's not in our best interest to push it, because for him to hit, he has to have his legs underneath him."

Healthy Castillo ready for a new start: Luis Castillo has reported to camp weighing 193 pounds, 17 pounds lighter than he was last spring.

Castillo said one reason for the difference is he is not recovering from surgery on both knees, as he was last spring. Mets manager Jerry Manuel has said he may use Castillo in the leadoff role this year.

"I feel so different than last year," Castillo told the New York Daily News.

No pain for Maine in return to mound: John Maine is throwing off the mound and experiencing no difficulty. Maine, who started throwing in December, is coming off surgery to shave a bony growth known as a Bennett lesion in his right-shoulder socket.

"I felt nothing, other than tightness," Maine told the New York Daily News about his initial tossing in Virginia this winter. "I felt no pain."

Richard not looking past spot in rotation: Clayton Richard turned some heads last year with his strong pitching in the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. He's hopeful that his experience in the postseason helps to catapult him into a strong 2009 season for the White Sox.

"It definitely helps to understand what the game is about," Richard told the Chicago Tribune. "I want to get into the rotation. That's my goal, but before I do that, I have to focus on everything. I can't look past that."

-- Red Line Editorial