1. HOUSTON ASTROS
THE BELTWAY B'S?
First baseman Jeff Bagwell, second baseman Craig Biggio and rightfielder Derek Bell, known around Houston as the Killer B's, are crowd-pleasers. Unfortunately for them, the crowds in the Astrodome aren't big. If attendance doesn't reach 2.5 million this season—the Astros have never drawn that many in their 34-year history and last season attracted only 1.3 million fans—Houston owner Drayton McLane Jr. has said lie will sell the club to a group of Virginia investors, who would relocate it to the Washington, D.C., area in 1997.
OUT OF RABBIT'S FEET?
Last July righthanded closer John Hudek had one of his ribs removed because it was causing a loss of circulation in his pitching arm. Now, for good luck, he wears the whole four-inch rib on a chain around his neck.
Houston-area natives Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell have a combined 61-64 record since signing hefty free-agent contracts with the Astros three years ago. If these former All-Stars, who are not even the two top guns in the Houston rotation now, pitch the way they did during their best years with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians, respectively, the Astros will be hard to beat.
Last year Houston's rotation, which went 46-52 with a 4.24 ERA, averaged only 5.9 innings per start. "We must get one extra inning from each starter so we don't put a burden on the bullpen this year," says pitching coach Brent Strom.
The Astros, led by their solid offense, will win the division.
2. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
OZZIE OR ROYCE?
Forty-one-year-old shortstop Ozzie Smith is more than likely to retire at the end of this season and devote more time to his business interests, including his temporary employment agency, Ozzie's Alternative Staffing. Problem is, Smith may soon be looking for a job himself. Though new manager Tony La Russa hadn't said so as of last weekend, Royce Clayton, who was acquired from the San Francisco Giants for three pitchers in the off-season, probably will start, and Smith, who is healthy after missing 77 games last year because of an ailing right shoulder, will lose his starting job.
ALAN OR ANDY?
"Andy, can I have your autograph?" a fan asked in spring training. "I'm Alan," said 24-year-old St. Louis rookie starting pitcher Alan Benes, who is four years younger, one inch shorter, 30 pounds lighter and has pitched in 196 fewer big league games than his brother Andy, a free-agent pickup by the Cardinals. The Beneses do have some things in common: They look alike, they are righthanders, they are members of the Cardinals' rotation, they rely on the same two pitches (fastball and hard slider), and St. Louis needs both of them to pitch well in '96.
La Russa, who was the Oakland Athletics' manager for the past 10 seasons, brought three coaches with him and has acquired four former A's. The artificial turf at Busch Stadium has been replaced with Bermuda sod, and for the first time since 1953 the Cards aren't owned by the makers of Budweiser. New proprietor Bill DeWill Jr. and a group of investors paid $150 million for St. Louis and then spent $33 million on free agents Benes and outfielder Ron Gant.