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This is key year for Astros

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  • Astros owner Drayton McLane is a man of the heart, and he wears that heart right to his clubhouse locker, which is plunked between those of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. McLane has told his people he's going to lose money this season despite drawing 2.9 million, but he opened his wallet for Pedro Astacio. McLane and all the Astros know this is an important year for them, because next year the NFL expansion team will be competing for the media attention and entertainment dollars -- in a football area -- and Astacio, Moises Alou, Mike Williams and Vinny Castilla are among their potential free agents. Their priority this offseason will be finding a legit center fielder, but they are few and far between.

  • Speaking of dealing for future center fielders, the Indians are very pleased with the offense (.904 OPS in Triple-A), defense and attitude of Milton Bradley, whom they acquired from Montreal for promising RHP Zach Day. The feeling in the Cleveland organization is that Bradley is comparable to Mike Cameron. As for 2001, everyone in that organization seems to believe that other than their pitching, the key to this season is Kenny Lofton. Hustle isn't the issue. The issue is, how much is left?

  • When the Red Sox were playing the Orioles earlier this season, Jim Palmer said during a broadcast that he'd had lunch that day with Joe Kerrigan and that Joe told him he's going to be the next manager of the Red Sox.

  • There are several reports out of Toronto that claim the center of the front office -- Gord Ash, Dave Stewart, Tim McCleary -- may all be out at the end of the season, and there are further reports that Paul Beeston will come back to run the business side. It hasn't been a good year for Ash, but the Jays' scouting and development people feel that Gord has treated them with respect and freedom, one reason the organization still has a lot of talent in the minor leagues.

  • It has been recommended to Dodgers president Bob Daly that he retain his front office structure with Dan Evans and Dave Wallace.

  • The pounding Jim Bowden is taking in Cincinnati has raised questions throughout the city and the industry about his future with the Reds, which has prompted further speculation that Bowden could end up with the Orioles and his friend, Syd Thrift.

  • Several player reps insist that one bargaining chip this winter will be that the players will offer a cap on draft bonuses, which would help restore the purpose of the draft -- namely, to help the weakest teams draft the best players. Asked what that would mean for Bobby Brownlie, the Rutgers RHP who may be the first overall pick next June, one agent said, "a $4 million deal. Not the end of the world."

  • For those who thought the season would wear down Ichiro -- he's lost one pound from his spring training reporting weight, thanks to diet and attention to his body.

  • This is the difference between the Yankees and Red Sox: In 1995, when Jack McDowell made a gesture to the crowd as he walked off the field (prompting the classic headline, "The Yankee Flipper"), GM Gene Michael was in the clubhouse minutes after the incident, telling McDowell that "he embarrassed the Yankees and himself," issuing an immediate $5,000 fine and ordering a public apology to the New York fans. McDowell happily accepted his boss's anger and demands, and made his mea culpa apology. When Carl Everett made his obscene gesture Tuesday, nobody in the Boston organization moved, requiring Frank Robinson to act. The message to parents and children at Fenway is that John Harrington and the Boston Red Sox condone such behavior.

  • But those Red Sox fans are incredible, and Bret Saberhagen says the ovation he got when he returned two weeks ago "is my second greatest thrill in my baseball career, after Game 7 of the World Series."

  • Is it time to ask when Andruw Jones is going to reach what we've thought was his potential, or is what we see what we're going to get? And in Javy Lopez's walk year, he's batted .223 with runners in scoring position after a career as one of the Braves' best clutch performers.

  • The A's may not recall LHP Mario Ramos, 29-8 in two minor-league seasons, in September because he doesn't have to be added to the roster this offseason. There is the fear that if there is a labor stoppage, everyone on the 40-man roster will be left sitting. But Oakland may recall 3B Eric Hinske, who has 22 homers and a .919 OPS for Sacramento. Oakland also may recall OF-1B Andy Abad, back from Japan, one of those guys you'd always hope to see get a big-league shot.

  • Remember this name: Kevin Youkilis, who resembles Steve Balboni. The 3B/1B from the University of Cincinnati, an eighth-round pick of the Red Sox this June, has a .311 average, 1.030 OPS and 62/26 walk/strikeout ratio for Lowell in the New York-Penn League.

  • The season may have been a disappointment for the Texas Rangers, but they will be fun to watch in September when they bring up 1B Carlos Pena (18 HR, .902 OPS after an injury-riddled first half), CF Jason Romano, 3B Hank Blalock, OF Kevin Mench and RHP Justin Duscherer.

  • "Isn't it about time that someone notices that Jon Lieber is the most underappreciated good-to-great pitcher in the National League?" says one opposing GM. "He wins, he throws innings and he comes up big when it counts."

  • It was very appropriate that Kevin Jarvis was the starter and winner when Trevor Hoffman got his 300th save, since Jarvis and Hoffman were roommates and teammates in the Cincinnati organization years ago.

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