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'07 Hall ballot released

Mark McGwire, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken headline the first-time candidates on the 2007 baseball writers' Hall of Fame ballot released Monday, sure to spark debate on Big Mac's place in history as the steroids era comes under renewed scrutiny.

Jose Canseco, whose book last year led to a congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball, also is on the ballot for the first time. Canseco said he used steroids along with McGwire when they were teammates.

Gwynn, an eight-time batting champion with San Diego, and Ripken, a two-time MVP with Baltimore, are considered likely to gain election on the first ballot.

Bret Saberhagen, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, and former MVP Ken Caminiti also are among 17 players on the ballot for the first time.

Rays await answer

Agent Alan Nero plans to respond this week to the Devil Rays' initial offer to Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura and remains hopeful for a deal.

"The ball's in our court,'' Nero said. "I'm digesting their proposal and getting ready to respond. We're certainly of the frame of mind to get a deal done.''

The Rays bid $4.5-million for the rights to Iwamura, who is expected to play second or third base, and have until Dec. 15 to sign him. Nero expects to have face-to-face talks with the Rays during next week's winter meetings at Disney World.

DREW, RED SOX NEAR DEAL: Boston is making progress toward signing free agent J.D. Drew, a move that could give it enough outfield options to be in a better position to trade Manny Ramirez.

The team has been exploring deals for Ramirez, who has two years left on his eight-year contract and has asked to be traded several times.

GIANTS: San Francisco was nearing deals to bring back infielder Rich Aurilia and reunite centerfielder Dave Roberts with his former manager in San Diego, Bruce Bochy. Aurilia, 35, played for the Giants for his first nine seasons from 1995-2003.

INDIANS: Promised the starting job in leftfield, free agent David Dellucci, 33, has reached preliminary agreement on an $11.5-million, three-year contract.

ORIOLES: Free-agent reliever Danys Baez signed a $19-million, three-year contract after passing a physical. Baez, 29, broke into the majors with Cleveland in 2001. The right-hander played three seasons for the Indians, then spent two with the Devil Rays, making the All-Star team in 2005 when he had 41 saves. He split last season between the Dodgers and Braves and had nine saves and a 4.53 ERA.

PHILLIES: Starting pitcher Adam Eaton reached a preliminary agreement on a $24-million, three-year contract, the Associated Press reported.

YANKEES: Mike Mussina finalized his $23-million, two-year contract.

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.