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.

Like Smoltz, who rebuilt his motion last season to reduce stress
on his elbow, Avery had tinkered with his mechanics to compensate
for shoulder pain. In 1998 Avery adopted a more sidearm motion;
last year he tried to return to his original arm angle, only to
overadjust and throw from too far over the top. That's where
Mazzone can help. Avery, who gave up no hits in one inning in his
first spring appearance last Thursday, says that he now has
confidence in his shoulder and that his arm strength is
returning. Mazzone is trying to reconstruct Avery's early-career
mechanics. "Wouldn't it be ironic if Steve Avery takes Smoltzie's
spot?" says Mazzone. "I mean, we all grew up together back in
'91."

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Houston's doubts about Alou's rehabbing on his own were erased by a first-at-bat homer this spring. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL

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, 1999 PERFORMANCE RENEWAL RATE RAISE
POSITION,TEAM

Troy Glaus, His 29 homers were second on $275,000 $63,000
3B, ANGELS Angels to Mo Vaughn's 33

Kevin Millwood, Won 18 games; held hitters to $415,000 $185,000
RHP, BRAVES major-league-low .202 average

Eric Milton, Reduced ERA by 1.15 from $285,000 $45,000
LHP, TWINS rookie year; had no-hitter in
September

Jason Varitek, Hit 20 homers; only Pudge $375,000 $137,500
C, RED SOX Rodriguez caught more games
in AL

Jeff Zimmerman, Reliever made All-Star team $250,000 $50,000
RHP, RANGERS as rookie; went 9-3 with 2.36
ERA

the HOT corner

As a precautionary measure, the Cubs pushed Kerry Wood's first
start after elbow surgery back 10 days, to this Sunday. They also
want Wood to stop throwing his slider, fearing the pitch puts too
much stress on his right arm. Says manager Don Baylor, "When I
say we're going to be cautious, I'm serious."...

Royals rookie outfielder Mark Quinn, who batted .360 with 25
homers and 84 RBIs at Triple A Omaha last season, then hit six
dingers during a 17-game call-up, is miffed at not having a
guaranteed roster spot this spring. "I don't feel I have
anything else to prove in the minor leagues," says Quinn, who
hit .300 with no homers in 20 at bats in his first nine
exhibition games....

Astros righthander Scott Elarton, recovering from off-season
shoulder surgery, started throwing breaking balls only last week
and won't be ready for Opening Day. That means righthander
Dwight Gooden, 35, in camp on a minor league contract, is likely
to be Houston's fifth starter. Notoriously slow out of the
blocks, Gooden retired the first 12 men he faced this year....

In his debut last week 19-year-old righthander Josh Beckett, the
Marlins' first-round pick in the 1999 draft, retired all six
Royals he faced and hit 96 mph on a radar gun. "I don't know
when I've been this impressed," said manager John Boles.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)