(Note: This was supposed to be published on Valentine's Day, but for some reason the site was down, and I didn't have time to publish until now, so therefore the February reference.)


And not a moment too soon.


While most of us are stuck in the cold, dreary month of February (unless you’ve got that special someone, then congrats and go get yourself a room), the popping of baseballs hitting a mitt can be heard statewide across Florida and Arizona.  Expectations are high and abundant, with every team even in the standings, and with every team from the World Champion Boston Red Sox to the lowly Tampa Bay Rays healthy, happy, and hopeful that this is their year.  Pretty soon as the snow thaws and the flowers start to bloom, players will slowly get into game shape and rosters will start to form.  And then, teams will make their way north (unless you’re the Florida Marlins, then it’s a couple hours south), games will start to count, and we’ll be on our way for another long season of baseball.


Yes, it happens every year, but just like Christmas, we all look forward with anticipation, and when the year finally arrives, we are treated with the surprise of an exciting, unexpected plasma TV (Colorado Rockies), the happiness of already knowing that you’re going to get a new Xbox, but finally receiving it when you’re supposed to (Boston), the same old status quo of a mall gift certificate (New York Yankees), the disappointment of socks yet again (Kansas City Royals), or perhaps even the drastic letdown of expecting the new Simpsons Movie DVD but receiving Gerry instead (New York Mets).


Regardless, it’s time to talk baseball, even with the ongoing steroids controversy (but Roger Clemens is most likely retired, and Barry Bonds is a free agent and probably won’t have a big impact this year, so neither matters for now and won’t put a massive cloud over the season).  With that, a few things to watch this year:


The biggest question is if, on the 100 th anniversary of their last championship, the Chicago Cubs will finally win the World Series.  They do have the talent, but their luck always seems to go bad, especially when it’s not supposed to (Steve Bartman).  Much of their division-winning team is back, plus Japanese sensation Kosuke Fukudome, so they will have a chance to win the pennant in a weak NL.  Will they make it all the way?  On paper, probably not.  But the St. Louis Cardinals won two years ago, didn’t they?


Speaking of the Cardinals, only thirteen players from the 2006 world championship team remain.  The other half of the roster is dominated by young, unproven players from their weak farm system.  All signs point to 2009, when these young guns get a bit more experience, along with the arrival of prospect Colby Rasmus and the returns of hopefully healthy Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder for a full year.  St. Louis will not be happy this season, especially with the past decade full of playoff appearances.


The Red Sox expect to be in the playoffs again, coming off of winning the World Series and having the best regular season record.  No big moves to rival Detroit, but they do have enough talent and experience (David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Josh Beckett, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, Jonathan Papelbon, and others) on their side, and the rabid Boston fans waiting to pounce in case they don’t produce.


The Detroit Tigers have arguably the best roster in baseball now, especially with the additions of Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, and Edgar Renteria.  With a lineup of powerful All-Stars, many of whom were on the AL pennant-winning team two years ago, this team may be the early favorite to win it all.


That’s bad news for the Yankees, whose age has been catching up to them for the past few years, though their insane expectations of winning every year has not decreased.  Wang will be a decent ace, though the rest of the rotation will have a lot to prove, including Andy Pettitte with injury and HGH on his mind and Joba Chamberlain with bugs finally off.  Alex Rodriguez is an amazing ballplayer, love him or hate him, even with a down year, but will the rest of the team be able to help him out?  This may be the year the Yankees finally not make the playoffs.


Taking their place in the Wild Card will be the Cleveland Indians, as they showed they were the real deal last year and can only stand to improve with one more year under their belt.  They probably won’t be able to keep up with the firepower of the Tigers, but again, a return appearance in October should be expected (obviously barring any unforeseen circumstances).


The Rays say they are going to take one more step towards contention this year, not only predicting that they will not finish in the basement for only the second time since their inception, but have an above .500 record to boot.  It seems like they have young talent every year, but are never able to get their act together.  They do have the talent (Scott Kazmir, Carl Crawford, Tony Pena, Rocco Baldelli) again this year to not finish last, but with the history of this team, it’s going to take a massive step to prove that they’re not the worst to the rest of us.


The Milwaukee Brewers will have to prove themselves all over again this year as well, especially since they fell off at the end of last year.  Will they be able to keep it up?  They finally have one year of contention experience under their belt (for the first time in over two decades), so perhaps they’ll know how to handle themselves better.  The talent is still there (Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Ben Sheets, J. J. Hardy, Bill Hall), but they’re going to learn how to handle themselves, particularly at the end of the season.


Another team that (surprisingly) fell off at the end of last year, the Mets, still have arguably the best lineup in the National League, and with the lessons of September on their minds, should be able to learn from their mistakes.  The addition of Johan Santana and the return of Pedro Martinez should help their pitching a lot, which was their weakest aspect, and if John Maine, Oliver Perez, and Orlando Hernandez pitch up to their capabilities, their rotation may turn out to be not so weak after all.


The Rockies were the surprise of last year, barely getting into the playoffs with a controversial extra-innings win against the San Diego Padres, and then making it all the way to the World Series before falling to Boston.  Can they re-spark the magic again this year?  They have a good mix of youth, talent, and experience all at the same time (Troy Tulowitzki, Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe, Todd Helton), but they won’t sneak up on anybody this year.

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