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Baseball
Stephen Cannella
March 20, 2000
Back in the SwingAfter a year's absence Moises Alou is giving the Astros a lift
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March 20, 2000

Baseball

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Play Now, Pay Later?
Last Saturday was the deadline for teams to renew the contracts of their arbitration-ineligible players (those with less than three years of major league service, excluding the top 17% of players with two-plus years, who can go to arbitration). That is, when the two sides haven't been able to agree on a new deal, the team pays the player whatever it chooses, as long as it's at least 80% of what he made the previous year. The move may save dollars now but risks alienating young stars. Here are five players, including Rangers reliever Jeff Zimmerman (right), who were renewed at bargain rates.

PLAYER, POSITION,TEAM

1999 PERFORMANCE

RENEWAL RATE

RAISE

Troy Glaus, 3B, ANGELS

His 29 homers were second on Angels to Mo Vaughn's 33

$275,000

$63,000

Kevin Millwood, RHP, BRAVES

Won 18 games; held hitters to major-league-low .202 average

$415,000

$185,000

Eric Milton, LHP, TWINS

Reduced ERA by 1.15 from rookie year; had no-hitter in September

$285,000

$45,000

Jason Varitek, C, RED SOX

Hit 20 homers; only Pudge Rodriguez caught more games in AL

$375,000

$137,500

Jeff Zimmerman, RHP, RANGERS

Reliever made All-Star team as rookie; went 9-3 with 2.36 ERA

$250,000

$50,000

Back in the Swing
After a year's absence Moises Alou is giving the Astros a lift

Astros manager Larry Dierker calls his star outfielder Moises Alou "the strong, silent type," but even by Alou's standards, the noiseless act he pulled over the past year was impressive. Alou missed all of last season after shredding the ACL in his left knee in a February treadmill accident and having surgery. Rather than rehab in Houston, he returned home to the Dominican Republic to work his way back into shape. Save for a trip to Houston to see team doctors last July, Alou had about as much contact with the Astros as Darva Conger did with Rick Rockwell. "The Astros left me a lot of messages," says Alou, who in his one year in Houston before getting hurt had an MVP-caliber season. "I can understand if they were worried."

The worry eased on the first day of spring workouts when Alou sprayed line drives and roamed the outfield without a hint of a limp. "A lot of people were surprised," he says, "but not me."

Forgive Alou, 33, if he's inured to dramatic comebacks: This is the third time he has returned from a career-threatening injury. After missing the 1991 season with right shoulder damage suffered when he dived into a base in winter ball, Alou hit .282 for the Expos and finished second in National League Rookie of the Year voting in '92. The following season he fractured his left fibula when his spikes caught on the artificial turf in St. Louis; when he returned to action in '94, he batted .339 with 22 homers.

Having traded a huge chunk of its offense in centerfielder Carl Everett (.325, 25 home runs, 108 RBIs last season), Houston desperately needs Alou to approximate the year he had in 1998, when he hit .312 with 38 homers and drove in 124 runs. Even if he doesn't reach those lofty numbers, his presence in the lineup will do wonders for the Astros' spirits. "He brings us that little air that good teams have," says first baseman Jeff Bagwell.

Alou, who designed his own rehab program, which included four hours a day in the gym, in the pool and, yes, on a treadmill, says even he was surprised early in camp by the lack of soreness he felt in his damaged knee. His stroke looked as strong as the leg: He homered on the first pitch he saw in an intrasquad game and went deep against the Dodgers in his first at bat of the Grapefruit League season. Still, Dierker's goal is to rest Alou more than in 1998, when he played 159 games, limiting his workload to around 140. But Alou doesn't seem eager to rest, saying, "I'm ready to play every day. I've forgotten that I was out last year."

Replacing Smoltz
Brave Return For Avery?

Either Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone has a hard time breaking habits, or he's deep in denial. "I still like the top three in our rotation, with Maddux, Glavine and Smol—," he said last Thursday, a day after the Braves had been jolted by the news that John Smoltz needed elbow surgery and would be out for the season. Mazzone meant to praise remaining starters Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood. "I've been saying that for so long, I can't stop," he said after catching himself.

Another name Mazzone once would have rattled off with Maddux's and Glavine's is that of lefthander Steve Avery, who, after three disappointing seasons with the Red Sox and Reds, is back with Atlanta with a minor league contract. Along with lefthander Bruce Chen, 22, he's a candidate for Smoltz's spot in the rotation. Avery, 29, is coming back from injuries of his own: He had surgery last August to repair a partially torn labrum and damaged rotator cuff in his left shoulder. "I was in the same spot as John last year," says Avery, who joined Smoltz, Atlanta first baseman Wally Joyner and Tiger Woods for some golf near Orlando last Friday. "Sometimes we need someone to tell us not to pitch, that our arms are not good."

Opposing hitters sent Avery, a two-time 18-game winner and the 1991 National League Championship Series MVP, that message long before doctors did. His performance had slipped (7-13, 4.67 ERA in '95 and 7-10, 4.47 in '96) before he left the Braves as a free agent, and he bottomed out in Boston and Cincinnati, going a combined 22-21 with a 5.50 ERA. His velocity dropped too. "By last year I was throwing 10 miles an hour less than I used to," says Avery, whose fastball reached the low 90s early in his career.

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