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SPORTS EXTRA / BASEBALL '99 | Baseball

One Thing Is Certain: Some Teams Already Hurting

April 04, 1999|ROSS NEWHAN

Forget the program.

You can't tell the players without a medical chart.

As the 1999 season opens tonight, a spring of devastating injuries and illnesses has threatened the balance in several divisions and altered races even before the first pitch.

Consider the National League Central, where the Houston Astros will seek a three-peat without Moises Alou, who is out for the year after undergoing knee surgery; the Chicago Cubs will try to regain the wild card without Kerry Wood, who is out for the year after having elbow reconstruction; the St. Louis Cardinals will try to mount a challenge without Matt Morris, who is also out for the year because of elbow reconstruction, and the longshot Cincinnati Reds will open the season with newly acquired ace Denny Neagle on the disabled list because of a weak shoulder and Pete Harnisch, their No. 2, sidelined by back spasms.

"I don't know if this opens any doors," said Phil Garner, manager of the undermanned but comparatively sound Milwaukee Brewers, "but a big part of winning is feeling you can win, and when you lose a Wood or an Alou, you're bound to lose some of that feeling."

The Angels know the feeling.

Buoyed by Mo Vaughn but still hounded by that long pattern of misfortune, they will try to beat the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners in the American League West without Gary DiSarcina, their shortstop and soul, who is out until at least midseason because of a broken bone in his forearm.

The Atlanta Braves will try to hold off the recharged New York Mets in the National League East without Andres Galarraga, who is out for the season because of bone cancer, and reliever Kerry Ligtenberg, also out for the season because of elbow reconstruction.

The New York Yankees, seeking to duplicate their 1998 domination, will open the season without Manager Joe Torre, who is recovering from prostate surgery; left-hander Andy Pettitte, who is testing his recurring elbow stiffness in the extended spring program, and Darryl Strawberry, who is continuing his comeback from colon cancer in the same format.

The Colorado Rockies are expected to put Larry Walker, who recently received a six-year, $75-million extension, on the disabled list because of a muscle pull in the ribs, and the Dodgers, while feeling better about it, still are uncertain about the availability of pivotal catcher Todd Hundley, who had elbow reconstruction in '97.

How does it play out?

Here's one view:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

West: 1. Dodgers; 2. Arizona; 3. San Francisco; 4. Colorado; 5. San Diego.

Comment: a puzzling division. Can Dusty Baker nurse another 90 wins out of the Giants? How will Jim Leyland impact the Rockies? Can the Diamondbacks truly contend in their second season? What should be expected from the Padres in transition? The difference? Arizona may argue, but no one in the West can match the quantity and quality of the Dodgers' starting pitching--with Chan Ho Park, Ismael Valdes and Darren Dreifort all likely to have watershed seasons behind Kevin Brown.

Central: 1. Houston; 2. St. Louis; 3. Cincinnati; 4. Chicago; 5. Pittsburgh; 6. Milwaukee.

Comment: The Astros won without Alou and should be able to again, but in a division featuring Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, will anyone really be paying attention to the race?

East: 1. Atlanta; 2. New York; 3. Montreal; 4. Philadelphia; 5. Florida.

Comment: The Mets re-signed Mike Piazza and Al Leiter and added Robin Ventura, Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonilla, Orel Hershiser and Armando Benitez, among others, but they still have to prove they can win in a division ruled by the Braves. Brian Jordan and Bret Boone figure to compensate somewhat for the loss of Galarraga, and Atlanta still has that remarkable rotation--20-year-old Odalis Perez is moving into the No. 5 spot--to take the pressure off the bullpen. Comeback reliever Mark Wohlers and heat-throwing John Rocker will replace Ligtenberg.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

West: 1. Texas; 2. Angels; 3. Seattle; 4. Oakland.

Comment: I'm not sold on the Rangers, but the loss of DiSarcina, their suspect rotation, the potentially combustible issue of finding playing time for four front-line outfielders and their star-crossed history make it difficult to pick the Angels--despite Mo.

Central: 1. Cleveland; 2. Detroit; 3. Chicago; 4. Kansas City; 5. Minnesota.

Comment: The Indians have 162 games to prepare for the playoffs. No team in any division is such a lock--and the Indians probably will get even better by acquiring Curt Schilling in July. Two teams--the Royals and Twins--already have unloaded their high-priced veterans and the improving Tigers are not yet in Cleveland's class, but could be a wild-card contender.

East: 1. New York; 2. Baltimore; 3. Toronto; 4. Boston; 5. Tampa Bay.

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