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Alou injury pulls favored Astros back near pack

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Houston Astros lost Moises Alou to a knee injury and lost out in the Roger Clemens derby, but general manager Jerry Hunsicker isn't ready to concede his club's position as the decided favorite in the National League Central.

"We're not going to cover up the fact that it was a huge blow to the ballclub to lose Moises," Hunsicker said recently, "but we want to make sure the team isn't feeling sorry for themselves. We recognize that we have a talented ballclub. Not only are we still capable of winning the division. I still expect to win the division."

The Astros still appear to be the most talented team in the division, but the inability to replace free agent Randy Johnson and the injury to Alou undoubtedly have narrowed the ability gap with the other division contenders.

Give manager Larry Dierker credit for finding a silver lining. He's just happy that the Astros still have enough depth to populate the outfield with three quality players -- Derek Bell, Carl Everett and promising Richard Hidalgo -- and the potential to offset the offensive subtraction with a solid performance from reclaimed free-agent third baseman Ken Caminiti.

"It's not as big a loss as if we were going to lose [Jeff] Bagwell or [Craig] Biggio because we've got three everyday outfielders that have fielding ability, strong throwing arms and can do some damage with the bats," said Dierker. "We don't have anybody backing up at second base or first base who can do what Bagwell and Biggio can do. Nobody's going to replace Alou, but we've got people who can come close."

The Astros won 102 games on the way to their second straight NL Central title last year, but they needed a 10-1 performance by Johnson down the stretch to run away from the rest of the division.

They had hoped to replace Johnson with Clemens, but now figure to enter the season with 19-game winner Shane Reynolds reclaiming his former role as the club's No. 1 starter.

Next in line

The Astros' front office should be thankful for one other thing: The Chicago Cubs did almost nothing during the off-season to alter the balance of power in the NL Central after finishing 12 1/2 games behind Houston last year.

The Cubs made a few marginal moves, signing free-agent catcher Benito Santiago and starting pitcher Jon Lieber, but did not add an impact player to last year's wild-card playoff entry. The club obviously is hoping for a big year from phenom Kerry Wood and another MVP performance by Sammy Sosa to stay in the playoff picture.

Talk about passive resistance. If the Cubs caught a break when Alou went down, they are in danger of being caught from behind by the Cincinnati Reds or the St. Louis Cardinals, both of which took a much more proactive approach during the winter.

The Reds, with their acquisition of former 20-game winner Denny Neagle and 50-home run hitter Greg Vaughn, have re-established themselves as a legitimate playoff contender and are hoping to strike a blow for baseball's economic also-rans. The Cardinals also made a number of off-season moves, but still must wait to see if they are a better club than the one that won 83 games in the shadow of Mark McGwire's record-breaking 70-homer performance last year.

The Cardinals lost outfielder Brian Jordan to free agency and traded Ron Gant to the Phillies to beef up their bullpen, but are banking on big performances from free agents Eric Davis and Carlos Baerga to keep them in contention.

The trouble is, it's highly likely that the only team to reach the postseason from the NL Central next year will be the division champion, since the Mets have upgraded in the East and there are several quality teams in the West.

McGwire: Cards improved

McGwire said on Wednesday that he feels confident that the Cardinals have gotten better over the winter.

"The off-season moves were very good," McGwire said. "I like what we did up the middle. We got Eric Davis. Our pitching staff is improved. Our bullpen is strong. I don't think there is a front-runner."

Of course, that wasn't the case a couple of weeks ago, when Alou was healthy and the Astros were still pondering the blockbuster deal for Clemens.

"I know everybody gave a sigh of relief when Roger was traded to the Yankees," McGwire said.

He could have been speaking for everyone in the division.

Nowhere to hide

McGwire, looking for a break from last year's sensory overload, traveled all the way to Australia over the off-season in hopes of finding a place where he wouldn't be recognized on the street. He almost succeeded.

"I ran into a lot of American tour groups," he said. "That was the only drawback. I thought I had found a place where nobody knows me."

No such luck, but McGwire said that he was treated politely by fans wherever he went after last year's historic home run chase.

"People have been great," he said.

Still more McGwire

Baseball's new single-season home run king also can't escape questions about his continuing use of the controversial bodybuilding supplement Androstendione. He seemed slightly peeved to be grilled about it at his first news conference of the spring, but responded matter-of-factly.

"It's legal," he said. "It's sold in every nutrition store in the country."

But what about speculation that Major League Baseball will follow the lead of the International Olympic Committee and ban the steroid-like substance?

"Major League Baseball is not the IOC," McGwire said.

Davis on Strawberry

Former Orioles outfielder Davis is in regular contact with longtime friend Darryl Strawberry, who is trying to get ready for Opening Day while undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer, but Davis isn't making any predictions about Strawberry's ability to make a successful comeback.

"If he came back and hit one home run, I think that would be a victory," said Davis, who battled back from the same disease to have an outstanding season for the Orioles last year. "I think that everything after that is gravy."

I-Rod raises ire

Texas Rangers officials were a little miffed last week when catcher Ivan Rodriguez did not report to camp on time. Rodriguez reportedly blamed the American Airlines pilot sickout for delaying his return to Puerto Rico to tie up some preseason loose ends, which, in turn, delayed his return for the opening of full-squad workouts.

Rumor mill

It happens every spring, or so it seems. The Rangers have been scouting veteran Royals pitcher Kevin Appier for a possible spring deal, but don't expect Appier to start packing anytime soon. He might hold the major-league record for appearances in trade speculation by a player who has never been traded. The Milwaukee Brewers have all but given up on trading second baseman Fernando Vina. They tried all winter to move him for a decent starting pitcher, but found no takers. Now, all they can do is hope that a contending club suffers a loss this spring and comes knocking again. The Cubs might be in the market for a fifth outfielder later in spring training. They intend to go with 27-year-old minor-leaguer Robin Jennings, who is out of minor-league options, but could pull someone off of waivers if that doesn't work out.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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