Perhaps no franchise in baseball heads into the new season under stranger circumstances than the Minnesota Twins. They've won two World Series titles in the past seven years, yet the Twins look like the game's 1994 answer to last season's San Diego Padres -- the small-market, financially strapped team that may determine the outcome of a pennant race or two without being anywhere close to one of its own.

Last year, of course, the National League West race turned around with the mid-July trade of slugging first baseman Fred McGriff from the Padres to the Atlanta Braves. This season, the American League East outcome very well could depend upon which club is able to pull off a deal for one of the Twins' marketable and apparently soon-to-be-available players -- starting pitcher Kevin Tapani, closer Rick Aguilera and outfielder Shane Mack.

The Twins went 71-91 and finished in sixth place, 23 games behind in the AL West, last season. Even with realignment (which moved Minnesota to the AL Central) and the expanded postseason, the Twins don't figure to be in playoff contention this year. And when they do fall hopelessly out of the race, the Twins almost certainly will trade Tapani, Aguilera and Mack.

Throughout spring training, two of the AL East's potential heavyweights -- the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles -- attempted to pry Tapani away from the Twins. The 30-year-old right-hander is coming off a down year: He went 12-15 with a 4.43 earned run average in 1993. But he won 16 games in 1991 and 16 more in '92, and last season's struggles may have been in part attributable to a sore shoulder. Tapani got off to a 3-11 start last year. He never complained about his health, but his teammates say he pitched through pain.

"At least I proved I can take a beating," Tapani said during spring training. "... I pitched 225 innings {last season}. I had quantity, but the quality wasn't where you'd like it to be."

Tapani showed no ill effects of that injury this spring. Teams that inquired over the winter were told by the Twins that Tapani and Aguilera were available. Now, however, it seems unlikely that any deals involving them will be made before the Twins are well out of contention. The Padres left their fans outraged with their fire sale last year, and Twins General Manager Andy MacPhail apparently will at least make an early-season attempt at winning.

The Red Sox appear willing to part with third baseman Scott Cooper for Mack, who could fill Boston's hole in right field (the Red Sox also seem interested in the St. Louis Cardinals' Brian Jordan).

The Twins need young, low-salary players. They expect to lose $5 million this season even if they draw 2 million fans to the Metrodome, and club officials have confirmed that owner Carl Pohlad is willing to listen to offers for the team. Pohlad hopes the team will remain in Minneapolis, and no sale seems imminent.

"I really can't see anyone being too interested about buying the Twins until the {labor} negotiations with the players get taken care of," team president Jerry Bell said recently. "I think it's much more realistic to expect the team to be sold within two or three years than to expect a sale in the next six months."

Tough Act to Follow

Frank Thomas beware: The last five non-pitchers to win the AL Most Valuable Player award (Cal Ripken, Rickey Henderson, Robin Yount, Jose Canseco and George Bell) averaged only .258 between them, with 18 home runs and 72 RBI per man, in their follow-up seasons. They'd batted a combined .316 and averaged 34 homers and 107 RBI apiece in their MVP seasons.

Said Thomas, the Chicago White Sox' first baseman who hit .317 with 41 home runs and 128 RBI last year: "Maybe after winning the MVP, most of those guys come back unfocused or they don't work the same way or they try to do something different. I really plan on doing the same things I've always done. I'm not going to change a thing.

"People tell me the things I've done in the last three years {when he's batted .319 and averaged 32 homers, 117 RBI and 124 walks} haven't been done in a while. That's what I'm saying: 'Don't believe the hype.' Because if you start reading that stuff and get caught up in it, you will slip. I hit a nice groove last year, and hopefully it'll be the same way for the next 15 years." ...

This may be the greatest testimonial to what Peter Angelos has done in his six months as the Orioles' majority owner: The Orioles will open the season with a higher payroll than the Blue Jays. Baltimore's payroll is approximately $39 million, and Toronto's about $38 million. Last season, the Orioles' payroll was $30 million, and the Blue Jays were at $45 million.

Of course, the bad news for the Orioles is that Toronto has some room to maneuver. The Blue Jays say they can afford to go back up to $45 million, and that may permit them to sign free agent outfielder Ron Gant once he's healthy in the middle of the summer and continue to pursue possible trades for a top-notch starter (Andy Benes, Pete Harnisch, Tapani or Bret Saberhagen). ...

From the "It's Great Work If You Can Get It" department: The Cleveland Indians last week signed catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. to a three-year, $7.65 million contract extension that will run from 1995 to '97. Over the past three seasons, the injury-prone Alomar has played in just 204 games -- or 68 per year.

Meanwhile, the New York Mets released Glenn Davis late in the spring because they didn't believe the injury-prone first baseman would make it through the season unscathed. Over the past three seasons, Davis played in 185 games for the Orioles -- or 62 per year.

Avery's Struggles

Braves starters Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux have won the last three NL Cy Young awards (Maddux won his first, in 1992, while with the Chicago Cubs). And many baseball people believe that Atlanta's 23-year-old left-hander, Steve Avery, will capture that honor this season. After all, Avery went 18-6 with a 2.94 ERA last season, and the Braves went 28-7 in his starts.

It was a rough spring training for Avery, though. He worked to a 5.14 ERA in five outings in Florida, and he had to battle shoulder soreness. That's an ominous sign for the Braves, who haven't experienced a significant injury to any of their key starters -- Glavine, Maddux, Avery and John Smoltz -- during the past three seasons.

Club officials insist that run of prosperity isn't about to end. Avery is scheduled to start the Braves' fourth regular season game, on Thursday in San Diego, and pitching coach Leo Mazzone said last week: "He's fine. There's nothing to be worried about at all." ...

The Blue Jays were pleasantly surprised about how well converted catcher Carlos Delgado played in left field during the spring. Delgado, who likely will be one of baseball's top rookies this season, previously had played the position extensively only during winter ball, but he made several fine catches and won the starting job there after Rob Butler faltered early.

"He's looked like he's been out there all his life," Manager Cito Gaston said.

Still, how good can a defense be with one converted catcher in left field and another (Ed Sprague) at third base?