Unless a last-second settlement is reached in the four-month players strike, baseball appears headed for dramatic changes next season. Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer I.J. Rosenberg addresses some questions on the minds of baseball fans.

Q: What did the owners do Thursday in Chicago?A: They delayed implementing a salary cap and other new work rules, but said they would do so in seven days if an agreement with the players is not reached. The vote was 25-3 to authorize a salary cap. If an impasse is declared next Thursday, the 1995 season is likely to begin with minor-leaguers serving as replacement players.

Q: Can the two sides reach an agreement in seven days?

A: Not likely. Despite lengthy negotiations, the two sides have been unable to bridge their differences. The owners insist on a salary cap or some other way to hold down salaries. The players want nothing to do with a restraint on salaries.

Q: How would a cap work?

A: The salary cap would be around $34 million per team in 1995, though teams who spent more than that last season would only have to trim their payroll by 25 percent of the difference between the cap and their 1994 payroll.

The Braves, for instance, had a payroll of nearly $54 million last season, so their 1995 payroll would have to be reduced by about $5 million.

The cap number includes salaries for all players on the 40-man roster, payroll taxes, travel expenses and insurance. The Braves would have around $49 million to spend on 1995 contracts.

Unlike basketball, baseball will not be able to play accounting games to circumvent the cap. Players will not be able to defer contract money to help teams fit under the cap. All multiyear contracts will be averaged so that they count for the same amount under the cap in each year of the contract.

The cap will be phased in over four years. The payroll ceiling will be 110 percent of the average payroll. There will also be a "floor" that requires small-market teams such as the Padres and Brewers to get their payrolls up to at least 84 percent of the cap.

Q: Would free agency change?

A: Players with four and five years of experience would gain restricted free agency. A team could retain that player by matching another club's offer. For instance, if the Padres offer Braves pitcher Steve Avery a four-year, $20 million deal, Atlanta can keep him by matching the offer. Six-year unrestricted free agency will remain in effect.

Q: What about arbitration?

A: Now, players with three years of major-league experience are eligible to have their salary determined by an arbitrator. That would be eliminated and replaced with a minimum salary scale for players with three years' experience or less.

Q: What would the union do if a salary cap is imposed?

A: First, the union would file a grievance against the owners for unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, which would investigate and decide whether to ask for an injunction, probably within a month or six weeks. If the NLRB asks for an injunction and it is granted, the case will go to an administrative judge, who would decide whether the owners acted unfairly. If the judge rules they did, he can grant the union damages and rule the salary cap illegal. That would throw things back to the bargaining table.

If no injunction is sought, or if the judge refuses to grant one, the players would take their case to federal court and also lobby Congress to take away baseball's exemption from antitrust laws.

Q: Can the courts force an agreement between the owners and major-league players?

A: Not right now. Congress can enact binding arbitration between the parties, but that would take quite some time since it would have to be passed by both the House and Senate.

Q: Is there a possibility players would come back during extended litigation?

A: Yes, but the union will only do this if its back is against the wall legally. If they come back under a cap, players are basically giving in, because litigation could last for years.

Q: If a salary cap is imposed, what are the chances of the owners using replacement players next season?

A: Good. The owners plan to open spring training on schedule, regardless of whether major-league players are still on strike.

Q: Where would the replacement players come from?

A: Many of them probably would be players from the minor leagues who normally wouldn't have had a chance of making it to the major-league level. Clubs would be wary of trying to get true prospects into major-league uniforms, realizing that when the major-leaguers eventually come back, it would cause conflicts in the clubhouse.

Also, it doesn't appear teams will be able to go to foreign countries and sign players because the strike has been certified by the NLRB. The Immigration and Naturalization Service will not grant visas to foreign players to come to this country and replace striking workers. It is not out of the question that teams will hold tryout camps for their replacement teams, much like the NFL did in 1987.

Q: Would a minor-league player in one farm system be signed as a replacement player in another organization?

A: This would only happen if a minor-league club releases that player. The reserve clause covers minor-league players.

Q: Would any recently retired players cross the line?

A: That is doubtful, considering those players are still members of the union and draw pensions from a fund distributed the union. But if a former player is hurting for money, it could happen.

Q: Is there any chance that union members would cross the line?

A: Yes, but no one knows in what numbers. The owners estimate as many as 25 percent might, but the union insists that figure is high. Few players are expected to cross in spring training, since they don't get their first paychecks until April 15. The union is worried that if one or two big-name players cross, many will follow. No one seems to want to be the first.

Q: Have other leagues used replacement players?

A: The NFL used replacement players for three weeks during a 1987 strike, but attendance was well below normal and TV ratings were way down. The NHL has not considered using replacement players because the shutdown is a lockout by the owners, not a strike by the players.

Q: How much would replacement players be paid?

A: Most would get the major-league minimum of $109,000.

Q: Would games with replacement players count if the major-leaguers come back?

A: No one is sure. Games with replacement players did count during the 1987 NFL strike.

Q: Would major-league players walk picket lines?

A: They might, if the owners use replacement players.

Q: Would the Braves lower ticket prices if replacement players were used?

A: Probably. Most clubs have implied they would cut their ticket prices, possibly as much as 50 percent.

Q: If the owners use replacement players, would the umpires back the players union and not work the games?

A: "No decision has been made," said Bob Opalka, an attorney with the Major League Umpires Association. The players, however, didn't honor umpire strikes in the past. "They played baseball then, didn't they?" said Opalka. The umpires' contract runs out after the 1995 season and they are negotiating a new one.