Last season was magical for Adam Wainwright.

He came into Spring Training not guaranteed of a Major League job. Then, despite being a starting pitcher throughout his Minor League career, he ended up in the Cardinals bullpen.

Fast forward a few months, and Wainwright is the Cardinals closer and striking out Detroit's Brandon Inge for the final out of St. Louis' 2006 World Series championship.

With Jason Isringhausen apparently ready to return as the Cardinals closer, Wainwright may go back to the starting rotation. Regardless, he knows he'll be with the Major League club at the start of the season in 2007.

Still, Wainwright is taking nothing for granted.

"I'm taking the same approach this year that I did last year," Wainwright told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I don't want to get ahead of myself as far as thinking I have this career going, I have all this stuff in the bag that I really don't. I'm not on the team until they tell me I am. I not sure of being a Major Leaguer until I have a long-term deal saying I am. Until then, I can't take any of this for granted."

One thing that is the same, though, is Wainwright's knowledge that he belongs.

"I said I was ready to be in the big leagues before," Wainwright said. "But this was the first year I believed what I was saying. Before it was kind of like I was talking myself into believing it. When I got to Spring Training [in 2006], I just believed it."

Wainwright also said he can already look back fondly at what happened last October -- especially in Game 7 of the NLCS, when he struck out Cardinals nemesis Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded and his team up by just one run.

"I had got my team into a tough situation here, got myself into the toughest situation I've ever seen, and my best pitch is my curve," Wainwright recalled. "I had to throw the greatest I ever had. Say, here it is, do what you can with it. If he beats me, OK. I just couldn't live with myself if he hit any other pitch but my very best."

Agent: Ichiro report was erroneous: A report in a Japanese newspaper, later picked up by the English language Web site Japan Baseball Daily, claimed that Ichiro Suzuki plans to leave the Mariners after the 2007 season. But Ichiro's agent dismissed the story.

"We stand today where we stood weeks ago, months ago," Ichiro's agent, Tony Attanasio, told the Seattle Times. "We have told the club that when they are prepared to talk, we would listen. I didn't say we would negotiate; I said we would listen.

"That's been Ichiro's position from day one he came to Seattle. He has never made any protestations, demands or requests to go any place. He's got a new home in the Seattle area. He loves the community."

The Mariners have made keeping Ichiro a priority. Owner Hiroshi Yamauchi is expected to be involved in the negotiations to keep him in Seattle.

"I really believe that the club has intentions of talking to us about an extension," Attanasio said. "When that will happen, I can't say. I know this -- we will not be the ones knocking on the door to do that. That's not Ichiro's style or custom. He never does that."

The report claimed that Ichiro was intent on going to a contender once he became a free agent.

"I am convinced it is very typical of a 'Star Report' type of bad journalism," Attanasio said. "Ichiro is working out now on a daily basis. These workouts are open to the press, and as is customary in Japan, the players say a few words after each workout. I can almost guarantee his comments were much less 'sarcastic' than reported.

"I could see him saying the same things he's said to [the Seattle media] as well as the club officials. He's going to be prepared to the best of his ability. He takes pride in his performance. It would be good to win in Seattle, and he would like that. He knows well his rights as a six-year player and will make those decisions down the line if and when necessary."

Another honor for Howard: Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard has been honored with the Ted Williams Award, given annually by Boston baseball writers to the best hitter in baseball. Howard was, obviously, humbled by the honor.

"Getting this award is special," Howard told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "First of all, it's named after one of the greatest hitters ever, Ted Williams. Not only that, it's in Boston. I mean, they're not even in the National League, so it's not like they see us all the time. It's really a humbling feeling to think there are people out there watching and appreciating what you do."

Howard, who hit .313 and led the Majors with 58 homers and 149 RBIs in 2006, has already won the Jackie Robinson NL Rookie of the Year, the NL MVP, the Hank Aaron Award, the Players Choice Player of the Year, the Sporting News Player of the Year, and the Mike Schmidt Phillies MVP (given by the Philadelphia baseball writers).

Gobble not worried about role: Jimmy Gobble isn't worried about his role in 2007. The 25-year-old Gobble, who signed a new one-year deal with the Kansas City Royals, says that he's ready to help the 2007 club in any way that he can.

"It's all about winning games, and whatever role they feel like I can play to help them do that, I'm all for it," Gobble told the Kansas City Star. "Hopefully we'll be competing for some good opportunities in August and September."

In 2006, his first full season in the Major Leagues, Gobble won four games and saved two more in 60 appearances with the Royals.

The two sides were very close to an agreement Wednesday night and settled on terms Thursday. Gobble played his first full big-league season in 2006, going 4-6 with two saves and a 5.14 ERA in 60 appearances, including six starts.

He averaged a team-high 8.57 strikeouts per nine innings and figures to work virtually exclusively from the bullpen in 2007.

Punto ready for regular role: For the first time in his career, Minnesota Twins infielder Nick Punto knows what the upcoming season will bring. After spending most of his life as a middle infielder, Punto is set to start every day at third base for the Twins in 2007.

"I'm excited, because this is the first time in my career that, as far as I know, I'm penciled in as a starter," Punto told MLB.com. "It's a good feeling, but it doesn't mean I'm satisfied with that. I'm always going to come in and work as hard as I can to prove that I'm the one that's supposed to be there."

When he first took a shot at third base last year, Punto admits he was not exactly comfortable. But as time passed, he said, things got better -- and he expects that trend to continue in 2007.

"I was just uncomfortable -- [that] would just be the best way to describe it," Punto said of his first week as a starter at third. "But after a couple of weeks, I felt a lot more comfortable. And I feel like I can get even better.

"When I get into Spring Training, it will be the first time that I can consistently take ground balls at third base. My goal now is to polish up my skills at the position. Last year, they threw me out there trying to fill a hole. But if I'm going to be out there, I want to do the best I can."

Hidalgo back with Astros: The Houston Astros reached into their past to possibly help their future by signing former club MVP Richard Hidalgo to a Minor League contract. The veteran outfielder, who missed the entire 2006 season, will be given a chance to compete for a spot on the roster this spring.

"We're extremely excited," Astros general manager Tim Purpura told the Houston Chronicle. "Obviously Richard is one of our guys. He got off track a bit in his career, and we're hoping to get him back on track."

Hidalgo spent the first eight years of his big-league career with Houston. He hit a career-high 44 home runs in 2000, and he was the team MVP in 2003. He was traded to the New York Mets in 2004 and last played in the Majors with the Texas Rangers, in 2005.

"I want to thank the Astros, Tim Purpura and Drayton McLane," Hidalgo said in a statement he gave via his longtime agent, Peter Greenberg. "I'm grateful to be an Astro again."

"He's lost a lot of weight," said Greenberg. "He's let his body heal. The last couple of years he was playing with a lot of nicks and cuts, problems with his groin, hamstring. Mentally, Richard has cleared his head as well to accept the fact that at this point in his career, he's going to have to come in to compete for a job in Spring Training.

"Last year he wasn't ready for that with Baltimore. Now, he's going to have to come in and fight for a job, and he's ready to do that."

During winter ball this year, Hidalgo hit .273 with nine home runs and 27 RBIs in 54 games for Magallanes of the Venezuelan Winter League.

Overbay: Blue Jays serious about competing: For Lyle Overbay, the new four-year contract he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays is just another sign of how serious the team is about competing.

"You get your ownership backing you up, saying we need to up the payroll and get a couple more guys to be able to compete, that's what you want to hear," Overbay told the Toronto Globe and Mail at the end of the 2006 season. "There are sometimes teams that try to go out and compete, but they're not really going to. But we were really close to being right there in it."

Negotiations with Overbay began after New Year's Day and concluded this past Friday night.

Overbay hit a career-high 22 home runs last year and was fourth in the American League with 46 doubles. He hit .300 or better in every month except April, finishing with a career-high .312 average. Also, he was part of a team of Major League players that toured Japan after the World Series.

-- Red Line Editorial