Cole Hamels is anxious to help wildfire victims when he returns home to San Diego next month.

Hamels, whose family was not directly affected by the wildfires, initially wanted to return weeks ago when the fires were blazing out of control and destroying acres upon acres of property, some of it owned by friends and former neighbors.

"Right before I started packing my bags, my parents called and told me not to even come out there, because all the freeways were closed and I'd just be stranded there. That's when I realized it was pretty bad," Hamels told the Philadelphia Daily News.

Hamels had little choice but to wait, but he will have another opportunity to lend a hand when he returns in January to work out with pitching instructor Tom House.

"I understand it's the holiday season, and I'm always willing to give back as much as possible to the community," Hamels said. "I'll definitely donate whatever I can, but I know it'll never amount to what people actually lost. Hopefully, it can at least put a smile on their face."

Meanwhile, he's still preparing for the 2008 season -- and is hoping that he can get through it without missing any time.

"My goal is just to stay healthy," he said. "Being on the injured list isn't fun for me, and it doesn't help the team. I look forward to going out there every five days, so when I miss 30 days, it's pretty hard on me."

Matsui gets rave reviews from Astros: The Houston Astros finalized their three-year contract agreement with second baseman Kaz Matsui. The native of Osaka, Japan, hit .288 with four home runs and 37 RBIs last season for Colorado. He also stole a career-high 32 bases and scored 84 runs, also a career best.

Matsui was one of only six switch-hitters in 2007 (Chone Figgins, Jose Reyes, Brian Roberts, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino) to record at least 30 extra-base hits and 30 stolen bases.

"Kaz is an ideal fit for our club," general manager Ed Wade told Astros.com. "He's an outstanding defensive second baseman and is a perfect fit to hit second behind Michael Bourn. Kaz runs extremely well. He steals bases, moves runners and takes the extra base; he plays the game the right way. With he and Bourn at the top, followed by [Hunter] Pence, [Lance] Berkman and [Carlos] Lee, we should have a very potent offensive attack."

Matsui started his professional career with the Seibu Lions in 1995 and stayed there through the 2003 season. He signed with the New York Mets in December 2003 and landed with the Rockies on June 9, 2006.

Mets bring Schneider, Church on board from Nats: The New York Mets continue to tweak the roster by trading outfielder Lastings Milledge to the Washington Nationals for catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church. It is a deal general manager Omar Minaya brings "balance" to the team.

"It makes us a better team going into next year," Minaya told Newsday. "I know that names like Schneider and Church are not 'known' names. But they give balance to our team.

"I'm big on defense, and this trade is one where we get offensive production and we also get defense up the middle, defense in the corner and as a whole."

Schneider threw out 29.3 percent of would-be base-stealers last season, ranking third in the National League, while Church is a polished outfielder as well. Despite already trading for Johnny Estrada earlier this offseason, Minaya felt Schneider is too good to pass up and called him the team's new "everyday catcher," despite hitting only .235 with six home runs and 54 RBIs last year.

"One of the bigger parts of my game is working with the pitching staff and sticking to a game plan, executing it along with controlling the running game," Schneider said.

Church is expected to start in right field for the Mets after hitting .272 with 15 homers last season.

Saltalamacchia slated as a catcher for Rangers: Wanting to let Jarred Saltalamacchia know what position he is going to play next season, the Texas Rangers said Saltalamacchia is a catcher -- at least for now. Saltalamacchia, who joined the Rangers at the trade deadline last season, played both first base and catcher for the Rangers.

"Everybody agrees it's in his best interests to catch full-time," general manager Jon Daniels told the Dallas Morning News. "His value is greatest as a catcher, so that's where he's going to be."

Saltalamacchia, however, is not guaranteed the starting spot at catcher as long as the Rangers still have Gerald Laird. Laird will compete with Saltalamacchia for the starting spot. Laird struggled at the plate late in the season, but he threw out 39.8 percent of runners who tried to steal a base against him.

"He's a better player than people give him credit for," Daniels said of Laird. "He made a lot of strides last year. He still has room to grow, and I think there's more there offensively, but he's a good defensive catcher."

Milledge reunites with Nationals' Acta: The Nationals acquired outfielder Lastings Milledge, the 12th overall pick in the 2003 Draft, from the New York Mets in exchange for catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church.

"When you look at a trade like this from our club's perspective, the deal isn't made for the 25-man roster in 2008," general manager Jim Bowden told the Washington Post. "The deal is made to build a championship club."

The deal reunites Milledge with Nationals manager Manny Acta, who was with the Mets when Milledge made his Major League debut in 2006.

"When I was struggling a little bit up there and everybody seemed to be against me, Manny was there for me," Milledge said. "He gave me some words of encouragement. ... It made me a better person. It made me a better ballplayer. It helped me, at a young age, to really play in a big market and really have everyone against you at one point."

The trade leaves the Nationals without a starting catcher.

"We're not done," Bowden said, indicating more moves to come.

Cardinals sign Izturis to one-year deal: Not wanting to miss out on a player they consider an outstanding defensive commodity, the St. Louis Cardinals have signed shortstop Cesar Izturis for the 2008 season.

"He's looking for a challenge," St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We wanted somebody ready to take the challenge."

Despite not being necessarily known for his offense, the Cardinals brought Izturis on board when they determined that things with free agent David Eckstein were not going to get done.

"Internally, we looked at some things that could be improved. We still rate him very high defensively," said Mozeliak. "When you look at what was available in the free agent market, we didn't want to lose out on Izturis and not get David back.

"Ultimately, we decided we couldn't keep waiting. If we didn't do something, we'd probably lose both."

In 2004 while with the Dodgers, Izturis won the National League's Gold Glove Award.

Astros offer arbitration to Loretta, Miller: The Houston Astros offered salary arbitration to infielder Mark Loretta and left-handed pitcher Trever Miller. The club will receive compensatory picks between the first and second rounds in next year's Draft if the players decline and sign with another team.

General manager Ed Wade said the Astros have had brief talks with the agents of Loretta and Miller.

"We still think there's potential for them to have roles on our club," Wade told the Houston Chronicle. "We'd like to continue to talk, but at the same time it behooves us to offer and preserve the draft-pick compensation even if they do sign someplace else."

Loretta and Miller have until Friday to accept arbitration or decline. If they accept, they are considered signed by the club and just need to figure out what the salary would be.

"From a strategic standpoint, the only moves we thought we had to make at this point were the ones with both Mark and Trever because of the draft picks," Wade said.

Miller had a 4.34 ERA last season and set a Major League record by appearing in the most games (76) in one year without receiving a decision. Loretta hit .287 with four homers and 41 RBIs in 133 games with the Astros in 2007.

Cubs likely to turn to Pie in center field: Speedy Chicago Cubs outfielder Felix Pie, who split time last year between Triple-A Iowa and the Cubs, is going to be given every chance in the world to win the starting job in center field for 2008, says manager Lou Piniella.

"Our hitting coach (Gerald Perry) has been to the Dominican. We've tried to impress on him [to] get a little more compact with your swing, let's be a little more patient, a little more selective at home plate," Piniella told the Chicago Tribune. "Let's bunt a little bit more, let's stay on the ball longer. Let's get on base and get your on-base percentage up, because he can really help us defensively.

"That's really a big key for us this year, whether this kid is going to be ready to take over in center field."

In Chicago last season, Pie hung around for 177 at-bats and hit nine doubles, two triples and three home runs. He also stole eight bases and was caught just once.

Cuddyer, Young give Gardy solid outfield options: With Michael Cuddyer already installed in right field for the Minnesota Twins, where will newly acquired right fielder Delmon Young fit in, you might ask? Manager Ron Gardenhire admits that he's not sure, but the one thing he does know is that the team won't be asking Cuddyer to move back to the infield.

"Michael Cuddyer is a solid outfielder, he's become a solid hitter, he's one of our leaders, and I have no plans on putting him back at third base," Gardenhire told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "That was something that wasn't comfortable for him, and even though I think he could probably go do it and be fine, I think we've got a very good player out there in the outfield and that's where he needs to stay."

So, then, it would appear that it's one outfield spot or the other for Cuddyer.

"If it looks like it's easier for Cuddy to move over (to left field), I'd talk to Cuddy about that," added Gardenhire. "But he was our right fielder and has done a super job. Delmon, he's a lot younger, he probably, maybe will have a better chance to move around, so we'll see. I don't look at Delmon as a DH. He's too young, too good of an arm, too athletic to be a DH, so I think he's either going to be left or right, and we'll go from there."

-- Red Line Editorial