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Galarraga, Alou Leave Huge Holes for Braves, Astros

Beyond the shock and concern for the recovery of Andres Galarraga and Moises Alou, the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros face the cold reality of trying to compensate for the loss of two of baseball’s most productive hitters. Both are expected to sit out the season.

Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz and Houston General Manager Gerry Hunsicker said they were confident that their clubs had enough talent to repeat as champions of the National League East and Central.

Galarraga, who hit 44 home runs and drove in 121 runs in his first season with the Braves, will begin chemotherapy soon for bone cancer in his spine. The Atlanta medical reports are optimistic, but his return to baseball at 39 next season is problematic.

Schuerholz talked of the team losing Galarraga’s joy, vibrancy and presence, and said that from an offensive standpoint the Braves were fortunate to have signed Brian Jordan and Otis Nixon as free agents, and to have traded Denny Neagle for second baseman Bret Boone.

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“We set club records for offense last year,” he said. “We won’t have the big guy in the middle now, pounding 500-foot home runs, but we’ll still be a very effective offensive team. In fact, we’ll have more speed and more offense spread more evenly throughout the lineup.”

Ryan Klesko will move from left field to first base, replacing Galarraga. Nixon--or a platoon of Nixon and Gerald Williams--will play left and bat leadoff. Jordan will play right and probably hit in Galarraga’s cleanup spot. The productive Boone stabilizes a problem position, the Braves having cut into their cornerstone pitching to get him. But they figure they can replace Neagle with Kevin Milwood, 18-9 in his first full season, and hope for the emergence of Bruce Chen.

A productive farm system has contributed to the Braves’ success of the ‘90s, allowing Schuerholz to deal aggressively while retaining some payroll control.

There has been speculation that the Braves would be interested in replacing Galarraga with Jeff King of the Kansas City Royals or Hal Morris of the Cincinnati Reds, but Schuerholz said he expects Klesko to handle the transition to a position he formerly played, only not with Galarraga’s grace.

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The Cat will be missed in many ways, but Jordan and Boone bring an edge and attitude to a team thought, at times, to be too perfunctory.

“I don’t buy that,” Schuerholz said. “You can’t win 73 games more than any other team in this decade and play in seven consecutive league championship series and have as many Cy Young Award winners as we have had and be strictly workmanlike. It takes ability and it takes dedication and spirit, and we have that.

“I mean, in this environment, with the volatility around player contracts and roster management, to assimilate a dramatically large turnover of key players into a championship effort . . . is remarkable. Little has been made of it, but if it’s so easy, so ho-hum, why hasn’t anyone else done it?”

The Astros had been looking to build a similar success story, going for a three-peat in the Central. Now?

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“With Alou, we probably separated ourselves from the rest of the division,” Hunsicker said. “Without Alou, it brings us back closer. Our division is probably the most unpredictable in the league. I don’t see any team running away with it.”

Alou, who hit 38 homers and drove in 124 runs last season and then accepted $3 million to give up his right to demand a trade, will have surgery Wednesday for a torn knee ligament, suffered when he slipped on a treadmill at home in the Dominican Republic.

It was the latest blow in a wild series of events for the Astros, among them the departure of Randy Johnson, the tumultuous attempt to trade for home-grown Roger Clemens, the reacquiring of Ken Caminiti and the departure of catcher Brad Ausmus, traded to the Detroit Tigers to make room for touted Mitch Meluskey.

“There’s no use kidding yourself, thinking someone is going to fill the [Alou] void,” Hunsicker said. “You can’t easily replace those numbers. Having said that, I think we have enough talent to repeat as division winners, certainly, and once into the postseason anything can happen.”

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Richard Hidalgo, 23, will replace Alou in left after hitting .303 with seven home runs in 211 at-bats with the Astros last year, with Carl Everett in center and Derek Bell in right. Hunsicker said Hidalgo is “a kid who has stood out as having a chance to be something special, but until you prove yourself at the major league level, the jury is still out. . . . The only question now is, do we have too many young players in a lineup that expects to win the division?”

He alluded to Hidalgo, Meluskey and Scott Elarton, possibly the fifth starter.

The Astros had the most productive offense in the league last year, and with Caminiti joining the killer Bs--Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Bell--the nucleus is still formidable.

“It’ll come down to pitching,” Hunsicker said. “If we can hold teams to three or four runs, I think we’ll win the division.”

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Shane Reynolds (19-8) remains at the head of a rotation that has neither Johnson nor Clemens. The Astros, of course, never had Clemens and were never really in the bidding for Johnson, unable to compete with the Arizona Diamondbacks’ money or locale.

Johnson was 10-1 with the Astros after his July acquisition, but Hunsicker said, “While it’s unrealistic to think we can replace one of the four or five most dominating pitchers, I also feel we would have won without him. . . . As good as he pitched [against the San Diego Padres] in the postseason, he obviously didn’t make the difference.”

But now Alou is gone as well, and Hunsicker said, “injuries are the wild card. We all live with the fear. For a team like ours, that has to scratch and have so many things go right because we don’t have the financial resources that some others have, it’s really exasperating.

“I mean, I really feel this is a special period in franchise history. There’s probably never been as much baseball excitement in Houston. We won back-to-back division titles for the first time, there’s a new stadium on the horizon [in 2000] and we were able to add Caminiti to an already strong nucleus. Injuries are part of the game and you can’t dwell on them, but I have to admit . . . this hurts.”

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