Top 5 offseason storylines

When you're a baseball writer, you get consistently bombarded with three questions:

1) Can I get tickets?

2) Is George Steinbrenner really that difficult?

3) What in the world do you do in the winter?

The answers to these are no, yes and ... there's no such thing as winter anymore.

Covering baseball is now a year-round job, with news raining down almost every day even in November and December. (Less so in January.) You've got free agents playing musical chairs. You've got trades and nontenders. Then arbitration for not-so-savory dessert.

This offseason should be as eventful as any, with franchises taking root and stars signing hither and thither. Here's a preview of the winter's top developing stories:

Mr. Baseball Goes To Washington
Major League Baseball's long, sorry ownership of the Montreal Expos should soon come to an end, with Washington -- the franchise's inevitable home three whole years ago -- getting a new ownership group and management structure.

The Washington Times reported last week that more than 10 groups have expressed interest in purchasing the club from MLB, including one from Washington, a New York real estate developer and a Nashville-based consortium. Other parties identified as possible bidders are the group that originally sought a Northern Virginia club, a group headed by Reggie Jackson, and another headed by former Braves president Stan Kasten.

MLB will review all applications and solicit formal bids in early December. After purchasing the club three years ago from current Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria for $120 million, MLB is looking for close to $400 million for the team now that it has been granted a new, economically viable home. This would cover all operating losses and just about double MLB's money on the investment. Not bad.

Former Astros and Yankees GM Bob Watson, now MLB's director of on-field operations, had been considered for the GM job before he withdrew himself from consideration Thursday, objecting to its inherent temporary nature given the search for new ownership. (Omar Minaya, the Montreal GM, was hired away by the Mets last month.) Former longtime executive Pat Gillick has expressed interest in running the club, perhaps even on an interim basis.

The schedule for the Washington club -- which does not yet have a name, and will not be "Expos" -- has not been released, but early indications are that it will open the season in Philadelphia on April 4. Renovations to RFK Stadium, the team's home for the next several seasons while machinations for a publicly funded downtown stadium continue, should be complete by April 15.

MLB claims to want new ownership in place by the end of the year. Begin holding your breath ... now.

Need Skipper, Will Travel
It's an annual rite of fall: When the World Series ends, so does Bud Selig's news embargo. Which means that several manager jobs are about to be filled.

Wally Backman has been selected by the Diamondbacks to succeed interim skipper Al Pedrique after Monday's formal announcement. Backman spent this season as Arizona's manager at Class A Lancaster, where he won the California League title and was rated the loop's top managerial prospect by Baseball America. He was chosen over recently fired Mariners manager Bob Melvin (a former Arizona bench coach) and Expos third-base coach Manny Acta.

On the East Coast, early indications are that the Phillies, who tired of Larry Bowa's histrionics, are very interested in replacing him with either Jim Fregosi or Jim Leyland, no strangers to surging emotions themselves. Fregosi, who led the Phillies to the 1993 NL pennant, interviewed last Tuesday, following Don Baylor, Charlie Manuel, Grady Little and Buddy Bell (considerably more placid presences). John Russell and Terry Pendleton also have interviewed.

Leyland, the 59-year-old former manager who has spent the last several years scouting for the Cardinals while repeatedly saying he doesn't want to manage again, has apparently changed his mind. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "I'm very interested in the Philadelphia job," and that "my family wants me to do this." He was set to interview with the Phillies on Monday.

The Mets are reportedly interested in Leyland as well, though Minaya appears to be leaning toward a first-time candidate. Willie Randolph's confidence following his own interview with Minaya last Monday was curious; Randolph repeatedly referred to the Mets as "we" and "us," even though he remains the Yankees' bench coach. Minaya has also interviewed Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, Dodgers bench coach Jim Riggleman, former Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca and Dodgers field coordinator Terry Collins.

Will Steinbrenner Sign Everyone?
Even when he isn't embarrassed, Big Stein loves waving his money around. What will he do now that his Yankees were humiliated against the arch-rival Red Sox?

New York's unimposing rotation will almost certainly receive an overhaul. Mike Mussina is sure to return along with Jon Lieber, while the club has faith in Javier Vazquez despite his poor second half and postseason. There are rumblings that Kevin Brown has thrown his last pitch in pinstripes, though it's hard to see any club taking on any significant portion of his $15 million deal for 2005. You can bet Steinbrenner will go after the top of the free-agent crop, which includes Pedro Martinez, Carl Pavano, Brad Radke, Russ Ortiz and Eric Milton, and make a hard run at trading for the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson. Roger Clemens calls himself "99 percent retired," but Al Leiter, whom the Mets are open to trading, could be an intriguing stopgap. Expect at least two new Yankee starters in 2005, and they won't be Christian Parker or Adrian Hernandez.

Even though the lineup is already powerful, Steinbrenner will surely make an impassioned run at center fielder Carlos Beltran, which would give the club two eight-figure DHs (Bernie Williams and Jason Giambi). In fact, you can bet that the Yankees, who reached $183 million in payroll this year, will reach the $200 million or $220 million level next year.

Of course, the Red Sox have decisions to make too, with Martinez, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek and Orlando Cabrera all free agents -- decisions actually made harder with those players having just helped deliver the first championship in 86 years. Varitek probably has the highest chance of returning. But you can be sure that the Red Sox will parlay wisely whatever flexibility they choose.

Speaking of spending, any team that does this offseason will almost certainly have to give Scott Boras a buzz. The agent represents almost every star position player on the free-agent market - including Beltran, Adrian Beltre, J.D. Drew and Magglio Ordonez -- plus Varitek, Lowe and Kevin Millwood.

BALCO Goes Boom
Sorry, folks, this one's still out there, and the dynamite fuse is shortening by the week.

We've already had Gary Sheffield admit to having used a steroid cream supplied by BALCO (claiming he didn't know it was an illegal substance). We have federal agents claiming that BALCO officials told them that they supplied Barry Bonds with steroids (which BALCO founder Victor Comte calls "completely fabricated"). We have Greg Anderson, Bonds' former trainer, claiming on tape that he supplied Bonds with steroids during the 2003 season (an allegation Bonds denies).

Somewhat under the radar, two weeks ago, two-time Olympic gold medal-winner Alvin Harrison -- who had repeatedly denied using performance-enhancing drugs -- admitted his use of illegal BALCO products and was banned from competition for four years.

This story will get only worse before it gets better. Get ready for a hailstorm of asterisks, and our generation's version of the Pittsburgh drug scandals.

Calling Cooperstown
Don't be surprised if a borderline Hall of Fame candidate from last year gets elected to the Cooperstown in January.

The only legitimate first-timer on the ballot is Wade Boggs, whose 3,000 hits will get him in. Given that voters typically like to elect people, that means that a few holdovers could get the requisite 75 percent vote.

Last year, when Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor made the cut, several others had a close enough showing to threaten election this year: Ryne Sandberg (61 percent), Bruce Sutter (59), and perhaps Jim Rice (55). Andre Dawson (50), Rich Gossage (41), Lee Smith (37), Bert Blyleven (35) and Jack Morris (26) were the others to break the 25 percent barrier, and probably won't make that large a leap in 2005.

For what it's worth, the Class of '06 has no legitimate first-time candidates (Orel Hershiser and Dwight Gooden will get sentimental votes but nowhere near enough). It's the 2007 class that will blow people away: Tony Gwynn, Mark McGwire and Cal Ripken. Make your motel reservations now.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His new book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.