Numbers game could determine outfielder's fate

PEORIA, Ariz. Ñ Since 1994, Brian Hunter has spent at least a portion of each season in the major leagues.

The veteran outfielder, who turns 33 on Wednesday, hopes to continue his streak this year with the San Diego Padres.

Odds are against it. As a nonroster invitee to the Padre camp, the former Fort Vancouver High standout and current Vancouver, Wash., resident is on the outside looking in at an opening-day roster spot.

But with 10 days left on the Cactus League schedule, Hunter Ñ hitting only .188 but with two doubles, a triple and a homer in his six hits Ñ remains a factor in the San Diego outfield picture.

'We're excited to have Brian with us,' manager Bruce Bochy says. 'He brings us speed and experience. He's having a good spring. It's a matter of us finding a spot on this club for him.

'He's a great guy. His teammates love him. He has a great reputation in the game. We wouldn't have brought him in if we didn't think he had a chance. The way he has played has helped his chance. Now it becomes a case if the numbers work out or not. He has done everything he can do to be on this club. We will have to see if we have a spot.'

Six outfielders have guaranteed contracts Ñ Brian Giles, Ryan Klesko, Terrence Long, Jay Payton, Brian Buchanan and Xavier Nady. Buchanan also plays first base, Payton has been hurt most of the spring, and Nady is on the bubble to be sent down to Triple-A Portland.

'You never know,' Hunter says of his chances to make the Padres. 'During my career, I have been released the last day of spring training; I have made teams on the last day. I always think there is a place for me, but it is out of my control.'

The 6-3, 180-pound Hunter is a big-speed, little-power player who stole 74 bases for Detroit in 1997 but hasn't played regularly since getting 484 at-bats in 121 games with Seattle in 1999. He had knee surgery after that season and has been a reserve since, getting only 98 at-bats in 56 games with Houston last year.

'(The Astros) had Craig Biggio in center field,' he says. 'Bottom line is, you have to be put in the lineup to produce.'

Hunter says the Padres were the first team he chose to sign with as a free agent.

'Bruce is a great manager, very respected by all players in major league baseball; the same with (general manager) Kevin Towers,' Hunter says. 'That's the main reason I decided to attack this team first. Another factor was location. I'm a West Coast guy. And this team has a chance to win. I wanted to get mixed in with the players here.

'I'm at the stage of my career where I really understand how to play the game. I have learned to run since the knee surgery Ñ the previous five years, I played on a bad knee. Now, I just need a chance to show I'm faster than I ever was.'

Would he accept assignment to the Triple-A Beavers?

'That's not even an option,' he says. 'There are 30 major league teams. If I don't make the Padres, I'll have other opportunities.'