CHICAGO (AP) – Now that their bullpen is re-stocked, the Chicago Cubs would like to add a leadoff hitter.

To that end, general manager Jim Hendry spent several hours delivering his pitch to free agent shortstop Rafael Furcal on Sunday in Atlanta.

“If he chooses to stay in Atlanta, obviously nobody could fault him for that,” Hendry said Tuesday during a news conference to announce the signing of right-handed reliever Bobby Howry. “I just told him what we’re trying to do, what my plan may be for the next month, be open and honest.”

Furcal batted .284 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a career-best 46 stolen bases last season. He is friendly with Cubs infielders Aramis Ramirez and Neifi Perez, but whether he decides to join them remains to be seen.

If the Cubs don’t sign Furcal, the Cubs may look to trade for a leadoff hitter. They wouldn’t mind adding a starting pitcher, either.

But their bullpen appears set.

The Cubs and Howry finalized a $12 million, three-year contract on Tuesday that includes a $1.5 million signing bonus, a $2.5 million salary next season and $4 million each in 2007 and 2008. The 32-year-old was 7-4 with a career-low 2.47 ERA in 79 relief appearances with the Indians last season and held batters to a .191 average.

Cleveland did not offer a contract, which surprised Howry “a little.” Detroit and Philadelphia showed interest, with Howry choosing the Cubs over the Tigers.

“I looked at the guys that are on this team, the chances of winning, the makeup of the guys. Part of it is the city of Chicago, itself,” said Howry, who spent his first 4 seasons with the White Sox. “I’m not only coming back to a city I’m comfortable with, but a team that looks like it has a good chance to win.”

He became the second free-agent reliever to be added to the Cubs bullpen, joining left-hander Scott Eyre – another former member of the White Sox. They will serve primarily as setup men for closer Ryan Dempster.

Howry also has pitched for the Boston Red Sox during his eight-year major league career. He has a 3.58 ERA in 434 relief appearances, with 52 saves and a 25-26 record.

“We’ve gone from a big problem area for us to (having) an outstanding bullpen,” Hendry said. “Bobby Howry really puts the finishing touches on that.”

Howry debuted with the White Sox in 1998 after being acquired from the San Francisco Giants organization in the so-called “White Flag” trade the previous season, when Chicago dealt three of its top pitchers at the deadline despite trailing by a slim margin in the AL Central.

He saved 28 games in 1999 and was dealt to the Boston Red Sox at the 2002 trade deadline. A year later, Howry underwent surgery on his right elbow and didn’t regain full strength until last season.

“By the end of ’04, the velocity was beginning to come back,” said Howry, who spent two seasons in Cleveland. “But not until the last year, when I had an entire offseason to sit and rest and let my elbow recuperate – I think it took that before everything fully came back and the soreness disappeared.”

The Cubs were ninth in the NL with a 4.19 ERA last season and finished fourth in the NL Central at 79-83.

The bullpen was shaky, although Dempster saved 33 games, and starters Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were hit by injuries.

Wood had two stints on the disabled list, and moved to the bullpen to reduce stress on his shoulder before undergoing season-ending surgery before undergoing season-ending surgery. He made 10 starts and went 3-4.

Prior started the season on the DL with a sore elbow, then got hit in the elbow with a line drive in late May and wound up 11-7.

On offense, the Cubs lacked a reliable leadoff hitter, which explains the pursuit of Furcal.

“Obviously, he’s been in an outstanding situation for a long time in Atlanta, playing for a great manager, Bobby Cox,” Hendry said.


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