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Reds happy with return of Larkin

Barry Larkin is back, and that's good for the Cincinnati Reds.

Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez is close to signing a deal, and that could be good for the Anaheim Angels or Seattle Mariners.The Reds need a healthy Larkin, a nine-time All-Star shortstop, if they want to compete for the NL Central title. Leg injuries caused Larkin to miss all but 73 games last season as the team struggled to a third-place finish.

He had season-ending surgery Sept. 3 to clean up frayed portions of his Achilles and then began a rigorous rehab program in the offseason.

"It feels good. I have no pain or anything in the ankle, so I think the Achilles is fully healed and hopefully it will stay that way. I haven't felt a twinge or anything," Larkin said. "I spent this offseason doing a lot of things on my legs, the most I've ever worked on them, and in return they feel very strong."

Fellow infielder Bret Boone, who worked out this winter with Larkin near their homes in Orlando, said Larkin appears ready to go.

"I haven't watched him much yet, but he tells me he feels really good," Boone said. "He wouldn't tell me that if he didn't. It's exciting to have him back. He tells me he feels better than he did before he got hurt."

Hernandez, a former star pitcher on the Cuban national team and half-brother of World Series MVP Livan Hernandez, has drawn the interest of several clubs including Arizona, Tampa Bay, San Diego and the New York Yankees since defecting in December.

But a source close to the negotiations said Saturday that talks with the Angels and Mariners had gone the farthest, with Anaheim holding the edge because it also offered a movie deal from The Walt Disney Co., which owns the team.

Several teams went to Costa Rica last week to watch Hernandez, who impressed scouts with a fastball that was clocked between 91-93 mph.

In Winter Haven, Fla., the Indians said David Justice's shoulder injury could force him to start the season as the designated hitter. He was able to run a series of sprints this week, but tendinitis in the shoulder has had him on a supervised throwing program since the Indians began full-squad workouts Wednesday.

"I'd like to see him in left field midway through the exhibition season," manager Mike Hargrove said. "Right now it's his shoulder, not his knee, keeping him out of the lineup."

If Justice can't play the outfield, Geronimo Berroa would play left field. But the Indians would be stronger defensively with Justice in left and Berroa as DH.

In Tampa, Fla., Yankees manager Joe Torre said David Cone, who has looked impressive following offseason shoulder surgery, will pitch in Wednesday's intrasquad game.