Quick, somebody turn off that hot stove before it burns up.

Has enough happened in baseball in the last week to keep everybody happy?

In some other winters, more players have changed uniforms.

But when was the last time that such important players packed their bags or were on the brink of doing so?

When were so many of the best teams at the center of activity, holding their breath because they knew their fate in 1985 hung in the offseason balance?

When did so many division races seem so vitally affected by December doings? Why, four teams in the AL East have improved themselves so markedly that it seems just a matter of time before they think about seceding and starting their own, higher league.

Let's see, next year I think our lineup should be Rickey Henderson, Lee Lacy, Fred Lynn, Gary Carter, Cliff Johnson, Howard Johnson, Ozzie Guilden and Luis Salazar. If Salazar can play second, we have every position covered. Vance Law, Ron Hassey and Henry Cotto are our bench. We'll score some runs.

Our starting rotation will be LaMarr Hoyt, Don Sutton, Tim Lollar, Ray Burris and Walt Terrell, with Jay Howell, Ray Fontenot and Jose Rijo on call. We'll have to settle for Bruce Sutter and Bill Caudill in our bullpen.

This team may not get to the World Series next season, but if we sign Rick Sutcliffe (we're still in the bidding), we'll certainly be in the race.

We'd have the best starter in baseball, the best reliever, the best catcher and the best leadoff man and base stealer. We'd also have a nine-time all-star in center field, a .321 hitter in right and the all-time pinch-hit home run leader as our DH.

What really distinguishes "our" hot stove league team, of course, is that all of these players have changed uniforms in the past week -- either in trades or as free agents. We were hurt when Andy Thornton and Steve Trout re-signed with their old teams.

For a century, you couldn't tell the players without a scorecard. Now, you can't tell the teams without one.

In the AL East alone, you need a degree in advanced sports handicapping to figure out even a paper favorite.

The strong get stronger and the weak get weaker, goes the sports saying, and for that reason wise team builders are desperate never to fall clearly into the weak end of the spectrum. Solid but unfinished clubs like Houston, Boston and Los Angeles seem to have spent the offseason watching the whirlwind outside their windows.

Perhaps never before in baseball history has the motto of the age been so clearly: "Act now or get left behind." When teams like the Padres, Cubs, Mets and Twins suddenly show up in pennant races, caution gets thrown out the window.

Perhaps most serious baseball fans have the same contradictory feelings about this winter carnival: excitement and trepidation.

On one hand, whither goes a sport that offers Sutter (age 31) $9.6 million for six years or Lynn (32), who's past his prime, $6.8 million for five? True, Henderson may be worth taking out a second mortgage on Yankee Stadium, but how well can a game sleep when a 35-year-old DH can make $1.1 million a year?

Before too many tears are shed for ownership, it should be pointed out that the tab for this winter's crop of new multimillionaires has been picked up by TV dollars. That billion-dollar network deal Bowie Kuhn cooked up has put almost every club in a position to pay top dollar -- for the moment.

The scary part, the gamble, is what happens when that contract runs out in a couple of years. If you've built your salary structure on the assumption of an artificial TV prosperity, what happens if that underpinning gets yanked away?

That is a worry for the future. Long-term debt is baseball's equivalent of the federal deficit; everybody says, "Let's think about that tomorrow. The day of accounting may never come."

Yeah, right.

Baseball's daydream is that the players' union, seeing that owners spend like crazy in a free-market setting, will not drive a hard bargain during contract talks in areas like the pension plan, where they can get TV dollars directly.

Instead, they may concentrate on making sure that the current system -- arbitration, free agency -- stays in place. That way, the owners will give them the money by dint of their salary wars, rather than by bargaining it away in labor talks.

The good news about these whirlwind days is that for every fan who loses sleep worrying about whether some millionaire owner goes broke, there are presumably many fans who wonder if the New York Mets will win the NL East next year now that they have Gary Carter at catcher.

If the excitement of the past week helps generate enough ticket sales and high ratings next year, then maybe the baseball golden goose will keep on laying a while longer.

To be sure, it is now a fact of baseball life that this age of free agentry is marvelous for competition. And year-'round interest.

Baseball loves to wring its hands and think deep thoughts about its ultimate demise on the salary shoals.

While corporate brows furrow, some of us fans will just have to be forgiven. During weeks like this, we don't really care where the money comes from or how high it's piled.

We just want to find out if Rickey Henderson can steal 130 bases again, if Gary Carter can coax the Mets' young staff to a World Series, if Fred Lynn still has a great year left in him, if Bruce Sutter can . . .

If, if, if . . .

If somebody doesn't turn down that hot stove pretty quick, opening day may have to be moved up to the Ides of March by popular demand.