The New York Yankees start the exhibition schedule as a solid favorite to win the American League East, a prediction based on their possession of the game's best offense, one of its best bullpens and a starting rotation that has a lot of names, if not arms.

Their only spring problem should be age, because Ron Guidry is 35 and coming off a 259-inning season. Phil Niekro is 47 and Joe Niekro 41.

No matter. With the Yankees, it's unwise to ignore what happens outside the lines, and again this spring, much has happened. Here we go again, forward to the rear:

*Owner George Steinbrenner apparently went over the heads of some of his employes to offer reliever Al Holland a guaranteed one-year, $400,000 deal. The problem is that the Yankees already have three left-handed relievers -- Dave Righetti, Rod Scurry and Bob Shirley -- and so need a right-hander.

Several Yankees sources insist Manager Lou Piniella would like to see Holland pitch so badly this spring that even Steinbrenner would realize he'd made a mistake. Then Piniella could keep youngster Bob Tewksbury as a setup man for Brian Fisher and Righetti.

(Nutrition note: After reporting at the weight the Yankees requested, Holland gained 10 pounds the first 10 days of spring training.)

*General Manager Clyde King is still back in New York. The party line is that King is minding the office because team president Gene McHale is sick. Yankees insiders say the real reason is that Steinbrenner is mad at King.

(Historical perspective: Steinbrenner punished former general manager Murray Cook the same way several years ago.)

*Steinbrenner has imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on at least one club employe. That's just in case Steinbrenner wants to get in touch with him.

*Wonder who made the second Ron Hassey trade? When a reporter phoned King to ask him about it, King didn't know about it.

Don't touch that dial.

Here's some evidence the Chicago Cubs need only get their pitchers healthy to win the NL East again. A year ago, when their entire starting rotation wound up on the disabled list, they were nonetheless 51-37 in games started by Rick Sutcliffe, Scott Sanderson, Steve Trout and Dennis Eckersley.

They were 26-48 when anyone else started.

Bobby Cox's trade of Rick Cerone for Ted Simmons this week is his third trade in three months as the Atlanta Braves' general manager. His predecessor, John Mullen, made three in his final 25 months.

That deal should save the Brewers about $575,000.

One of baseball's newest statistics is called "quality starts," and although it is figured differently by different people, a pitcher is usually credited with one when he pitches at least six innings and allows three runs or fewer.

But everything is relative. Orel Hershiser, pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had 25 quality starts and went 17-0. Dave LaPoint, pitching for the San Francisco Giants, had 21 quality starts and went 7-9.

Bob Welch, pitching for the Dodgers, had 15 quality starts and went 13-0. Charlie Hough, pitching for the Texas Rangers, had 19 and went 11-8.

Phil Niekro of the Yankees had 17 quality starts and went 14-1. But Bill Laskey of the Giants had 11 and went 3-8.

The first phenom of spring training is Jesus Rios, a 22-year-old right-hander the Philadelphia Phillies found in the Mexican League.

Rios throws a knuckle ball with a Dan Quisenberry submarine delivery and other zany pitches, and a year ago went 21-4, with an amazing 26 complete games, for the Mexico City Tigers. Several scouts say he is as polished as Fernando Valenzuela was when he left the Mexican League, and the Phillies paid the Tigers $10,000 just to look at him this spring.

If they want him, the Phillies are going to have to pay another $90,000. The Tigers also want Rios back until August, but the Phillies are trying to work out a deal to get him now.

Another spring star is 24-year-old Andres Galarraga, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-handed hitter who had 25 homers and 87 RBI at Indianapolis last season. Dave Concepcion said he was the best player he saw in Venezuela last winter and the Montreal Expos already have awarded him their first base job.

As Galarraga comes, another spring training phenom goes. Herm Winningham, a star in 1985, hit only .237 last season and probably will be replaced by Mitch Webster.

The Cincinnati Reds have a young reliever named Mike Smith who is competing with Rob Murphy for the ninth pitching spot. Scouts say Smith has a 90-mph-plus fast ball and a new split-finger offspeed pitch, and that if he can get the ball over the plate a little more often, he can be a star.

But what the Reds may remember about Mike Smith are words, not actions:

On his career: "I've been healthy my whole career except for nagging injuries the last few years."

On his pitching: "I'm not a home run pitcher. I'm a singles pitcher."

Telling a waitress what he wanted on his salad: "Be sure to put some of them neutrons on it." Croutons?

Paying his incidental expenses at a hotel checkout counter: "I'm here to pay my accidentals."

When someone admired his new coat: "It's got a lot of installation."