The Astros were surprised and jubilant. They didn't think they could land Jeff Kent.

But a deal came together during five intense days of talks, and the sides finalized an $18.2 million, two-year contract yesterday in a move that forces Gold Glove 2B Craig Biggio to move to the outfield.

"This was not in our plan, was not in our budget and was not on our radar screen," Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker said. "I would dare say, after Nolan Ryan, this is the most significant free agent acquisition that this franchise has ever acquired."

Kent, who spent the last six seasons with the Giants, said he fell in love with Texas when his Cal-Berkeley team visited Austin in the 1980s.

Kent lives in the state capital and has a ranch south of San Antonio. Before last weekend's winter meetings in Nashville, he quietly told agent Jeff Klein the Astros were his top choice.

"I sent him to Tennessee and said, 'Go get me to Houston, will you?' " Kent said. He called his decision a "no-brainer," citing the departure of manager Dusty Baker as decreasing his desire to play for the Giants.

* RED SOX ACTIVE: The Red Sox agreed to a $1.85 million, one-year contract with RHP Mike Timlin and a $625,000, one-year deal with utility INF Damian Jackson.

Less than a month after becoming general manager, Theo Epstein has been active in reshaping Boston's roster. The Red Sox want to add a starting pitcher and may retain Cliff Floyd if he chooses arbitration rather than sign elsewhere as a free agent.

Last weekend at the winter meetings, Epstein traded with the Phillies for Jeremy Giambi, who can play first base, the outfield or designated hitter. . . .

OF Doug Glanville agreed to a $1 million, one-year contract with the Rangers. . . .

Free agent INF Todd Zeile signed a one-year contract with the Yankees, his 10th team in 15 seasons. . . .

The Angels claimed C Wilbert Nieves off waivers from the Padres.

-- From News Services