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BASEBALL'S BACK WITH NEW OUTLOOK

While the Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers were changing opening day, the Montreal Expos changed the nucleus of their team.

Los Angeles will play at Florida at 7:35 p.m. EDT in an early opener on April 25, baseball officials announced Wednesday after an agreement with ESPN and the players association.The American League schedule, barring rainouts, would see Cal Ripken tie Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record on Sept. 5 at home against California. He would break it the following day at home against the Angels.

When Ripken would reach the record was calculated with help from a source who has Baltimore's schedule. The full schedule will be released this week when all teams have finalized their adjustments.

There were several signings, most notable among them pitcher Fernando Valenzuela joining the San Diego Padres for $200,000 and reliever John Franco returning to the New York Mets for $5 million over two years.

Dave Winfield, traded to Cleveland during the strike on Aug. 31, signed with the Indians, reportedly for $600,000.

And Baltimore owner Peter Angelos showed no hurt from the strike, agreeing on a $17.25 million, 5-year deal with catcher Chris Hoiles.

Montreal, meanwhile, began its salary purge, dealing closer John Wetteland to the New York Yankees and No. 1 starter Ken Hill to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Expos already have lost outfielder Larry Walker to free agency.

"This is not a fire sale," Expos general manager Kevin Malone said. "A fire sale is when you're giving guys away."

The Expos didn't give 'em away for free, but they didn't exactly break the banks of the Yankees and Cardinals. For Wetteland, who had 25 saves in 52 appearances last season, the Expos got Fernando Seguignol, a 20-year-old outfielder; a player to be named later and cash.

For Hill, 16-5 with a 3.32 ERA last year, the Expos got outfielder Darond Stovall and pitchers Bryan Eversgerd and Kirk Bullinger.

"The economics of the current system is the reason we're making the changes," Malone admitted. "These deals are financially motivated."

Expos management, which probably would have had to pay in excess of $4 million to each pitcher, has claimed it will lose $20 million because of the strike and is trying to pare its payroll to about $12 million - a drop of $6 million.

Malone said an undisclosed amount of cash from the trade with the Yankees, combined with the $2,225,000 from Wetteland's 1994 salary and the $2.55 million Hill made, would enable the team to sign some free agents later this week.

Outfielder Marquis Grissom, who made $3.56 million last season and also is eligible for arbitration, could be dealt by Friday, Malone said.

"There are seven teams still in the bidding for Grissom," he said. "Other GMs are starting to call because they know now that I'm serious."

Kansas City dumped payroll, too, trading outfielder Brian McRae to the Chicago Cubs for minor-league pitchers Derek Wallace and Geno Morones.

McRae, 27, hit .273 with four home runs and 40 RBIs last season. In his four-year career with Kansas City, McRae, who made $1.9 million in 1994, has hit .262 with 30 homers and 248 RBIs.

"We had an opportunity to acquire two young pitchers with outstanding arms, and this supports our philosophy of further strengthening our nucleus of prospects," Royals general manager Herk Robinson said.

Robinson, dealing with David Glass, the team's money-conscious chief executive office, is trying to hold the payroll to about $31 million, a drop from $40.7 million in 1994.

Pitchers Kevin Appier and Tom Gordon could be next. Appier's 1994 contract was for $3.8 million and Gordon's was for $2,635,000.