Padres decline option on Piazza; Cameron will return

SAN DIEGO -- If Mike Piazza returns to the San Diego Padres
next season, it will have to be for less than $8 million.

The Padres declined to exercise 2007 options for Piazza and
slugger Ryan Klesko on Monday. The two-time NL West champions will
bring back center fielder Mike Cameron at $7 million and third
baseman Russell Branyan at $1 million.

The Padres also arranged their first interviews in their search
to replace manager Bruce Bochy.

St. Louis Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo is scheduled
to interview on Tuesday, while Trey Hillman, manager of the
Japanese team Nippon Ham Fighters, is due to interview on Thursday.

Padres general manager Kevin Towers was trying to schedule
Angels pitching coach Bud Black for an interview on Wednesday, and
former Dodgers hitting coach Tim Wallach for Friday or Saturday.

Towers said he told the Angels of his interest in Black, and
that he probably would call in the next few days to ask permission.

Towers would like to have a new manager by Nov. 12, the day
before the general managers meetings begin.

Bochy, San Diego's manager since 1995, jumped to the San
Francisco Giants on Friday because the Padres hadn't offered him an
extension beyond next season.

Black is believed to be a leading candidate. The former big
league pitcher lives in exclusive Rancho Santa Fe just north of San
Diego and has been the Angels' pitching coach for seven seasons. He
was a teammate of Tony Gwynn at San Diego State.

On the player front, no one was surprised that the Padres
declined Piazza's $8 million option, instead offering a $750,000

"There absolutely is a chance" Piazza could return to San
Diego, said his agent, Dan Lozano of the Beverly Hills Sports

"Kevin has indicated to me at some point he is going to want to
talk about bringing him back," Lozano said. "Mike loved playing
the year in San Diego. He thought the organization was fantastic,
the fans were tremendous and is definitely considering going back.
But at the same time, being a free agent does allow you to see who
else is interested in you. That's something he'll explore also."

The 38-year-old catcher hit .283 with 22 home runs and 68 RBI
in 126 games after signing with the Padres as a free agent. He made
99 starts and had a $1.25 million salary.

Lozano said Piazza's not necessarily looking to DH in the
American League.

"I believe he proved to the NL that he can still catch 100 to
110 games a year. He does not have a preference, so he feels he's
in a good spot. Mike really wants to win. He's at a point where we
don't know how many more years he has left. He really wants to try
to win a ring."

Towers said he'd like to have Piazza back, at a lower price.

"He did a great job for us last year. He's a tremendous guy in
the clubhouse, a great leader," Towers said. "I think he enjoyed
his year here, and I think the feeling is mutual. He proved that
he's still got a lot left. He caught more ballgames than people
expected. Certainly there will be interest out there for him."

Piazza's 22 home runs set a single-season record for a San Diego
catcher. On April 26, he became the 41st player in big league
history to reach the 400-homer plateau. He has 419 homers and is
the career leader with 396 home runs as a catcher.

The Padres held an $8 million option on Klesko, but chose a
$500,000 buyout. Klesko is likely to seek an everyday job rather
than playing behind Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Klesko missed the first 150 games this season while rehabbing
from surgery on his left shoulder. He joined the Padres in a trade
with Atlanta before the 2000 season.

Cameron was an upgrade in playing Petco Park's spacious center
field, and he hit .268 with 22 home runs and 83 RBI in his first
season with San Diego. He was obtained for Xavier Nady in a trade
with the New York Mets last Nov. 18.

Branyan batted .292 with six homers and nine RBI in 27 games
after being acquired from Tampa Bay on Aug. 24. He started 26 of
the last 33 games at third base.