1. New kids on the block

Major League Baseball has undergone its second growth spurt of the 1990s, expanding to 30 franchises with the addition of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

They have a couple of tough acts to follow. The Colorado Rockies became the quickest expansion team to reach the postseason in 1995 and the Florida Marlins became the fastest to win the World Series last year. The two newest clubs have spent liberally to be representative in their inaugural season, but neither is expected to be a serious postseason contender.

The Diamondbacks have the best chance of making a big first impression after a winter spending spree that locked third baseman Matt Williams, shortstop Jay Bell, outfielder Devon White and pitcher Andy Benes into multi-year contracts.

2. Big deal

It could happen any day. The Seattle Mariners could deal pitching ace Randy Johnson to the New York Yankees or the Cleveland Indians or the Los Angeles Dodgers and alter the balance of power in either league.

The Big Unit is a season away from free agency and the cash-strapped Mariners already have conceded that they will be unable to re-sign him. The club tried to trade him during the winter but demanded so much in return that even the freewheeling Yankees could not come up with a suitable package.

Club officials now says they are going to keep him through the 1998 season, but Johnson doesn't like being in limbo. Look for somebody to make a serious attempt to acquire him during the early part of the season - perhaps the Indians, who are facing a serious pitching shortage.

3. Home run chase

Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey got within striking distance of Roger Maris' single-season home run of 61 record last year, and the conditions for a record run haven't been better since Maris took advantage of expansion to surpass Babe Ruth's single-season mark (60) in 1961.

The pitching talent pool already has been diluted by expansion once in the 1990s, and the November expansion draft cut further into the pitching depth of the established clubs. If McGwire and Griffey stay healthy all season, this very possibly could be the year that the Maris record goes down.

4. The $100 million man

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza is on a collision course with free agency, but the club appears likely to meet his demand for a seven-year contract worth about $100 million.

That number seemed unthinkable just a year or two ago, but the Boston Red Sox made it more than plausible when they handed pitcher Pedro Martinez a record six-year deal worth $75 million.

Martinez was coming off a career year, but had not won more than 14 games in a season before his Cy Young performance in 1997. Piazza has never had a bad year, averaging 33 home runs and 105 RBIs through his first five full seasons.

5. The Streak

Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken is expected to play in his 2,500th consecutive game in late April, but Orioles fans may not be able to take his record iron man streak for granted anymore.

Chronic back soreness nearly forced him to sit down last summer and could crop up again at any time, but Ripken put himself to the test with a grueling off-season regimen and - he hopes - strengthened his back to the point where it will not be a major issue in 1998.

6. No contest

The Atlanta Braves lost offensive stars Kenny Lofton, Jeff Blauser and Fred McGriff, but they figure to have another free ride in the National League East.

The defending world champion Florida Marlins are just a shell of their former selves and the New York Mets - who will finish second by default - made very few off-season improvements.

The Braves added run-producing first baseman Andres Galarraga and still have the best starting rotation on the planet, which should be enough to run away with a division that they have dominated throughout the 1990s.

The oddsmakers have listed the Braves as a heavy favorite to reach the World Series, and why not? There is no dominant team in either the NL West or the NL Central, so the Braves' pitching figures to carry them through the first two rounds of playoffs.

7. Changing places

The Milwaukee Brewers volunteered to move into the National League to facilitate divisional realignment, but they'll have to adjust quickly to the NL style of play to be competitive in the six-team Central Division.

The move should benefit them from a competitive standpoint, because there appeared to be little chance of competing with the big-revenue Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, but the Brewers' pitching staff may be too thin to make them a wild-card HTC contender, even in a league with few standout teams.

8. Commissioner search

There's a chance that this could be the biggest non-story of 1998. Baseball owners have been promising to appoint a permanent commissioner since the end of the last labor crisis, but they still haven't found a candidate they like better than interim commissioner Bud Selig.

In fact, it has reached the point where you have to wonder if anyone really cares. The owners have rewritten the rules and taken away much of the power previously vested in the commissioner, leaving him with far less prerogative to act independently in the best interests of the game.

Selig continues to insist that he doesn't want the job permanently, but he already has been in place longer than any other commissioner since Bowie Kuhn. Under the circumstances, he might be the right guy for the job.

9. Best in baseball

No question about it. The American League East again is the best division - top to bottom - in the majors. The Orioles are coming off a wire-to-wire run in 1997, and they aren't even the favorite.

The New York Yankees emerged as the team to beat in the American League when they acquired All-Star second baseman and premier leadoff hitter Chuck Knoblauch from the Minnesota Twins. The Boston Red Sox got better when they acquired 1997 National League Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez. And the Toronto Blue Jays added several free agents in the hope of returning to prominence after a four-year rebuilding effort.

The only team that doesn't appear to have any chance of reaching the playoffs is the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and they aren't all that bad.

10. International incidents

Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu will be in the spotlight again this year, along with another newcomer from distant shores, new Yankees teammate and Cuban refugee Orlando Hernandez.

Irabu was a huge bust last year after the Yankees gave up a package of top prospects and cash to acquire the right to sign him, then gave him about $12 million to sign a multi-year deal. He proved with his churlish behavior earlier this month that he still may be too volatile to be a consistent member of the Yankees rotation, then last week he came down with elbow tendinitis.

The Yankees intend to bring Hernandez along more slowly to avoid some of the problems Irabu encountered last year.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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