Major League Baseball 2012: Is a Giants-Rays series a real possibility?

Another sexy pick this year by some publications is the Florida Miami Marlins, led by new skipper Ozzie Guillen and a whole lot of expensive new players, none more hyped than free agent Jose Reyes, the dazzling former New York Met shortstop who never can seem to go a full season uninjured.

And of course there's the Marlins' new park, displayed on national television Wednesday night as the Marlins opened the domestic regular season (for some inane reason, MLB had the Seattle Mariners play the Oakland A's during the middle of the night last week in Japan to officially begin the regular season).

Speaking of expensive ballplayers, the Marlins couldn't grab the biggest fish in the free-agent market this winter ? that being St. Louis Cardinal slugger Albert Pujols, who has just ended the greatest 11-year start in MLB history.

Much has been made of Pujols "off-year," such as his career worsts in batting average (dropping just below .300 for the first time in his career, sliding all the way to .299), and RBI's (99). And after signing a $240 million contract with owner Artie Moreno and the Angels, there is undoubtedly pressure for him to produce. If you believe what he's been telling the press (most notably Tom Verducci in Sports Illustrated), Pujols has corrected the bad habits that brought his stats down dramatically in the first half of 2011, before rallying in the last few months in leading the Cardinals to their second world championship in six years.

So what about the rest of the field? Can Boston recover from their epic choke job in September that cost Manager Terry Francona and General Manager Theo Epstein their jobs? You hear a lot of good hype about Toronto, stuck in the world's toughest division, the American League East.

In the National League, my Giants swallowed hard and committed to their number two pitcher, Matt Cain, giving him a huge contract a few days ago. The Giants are very similar to the Rays in that they rely on great pitching and just enough clutch hitting to get by. But the Giants had no hitting for most of last year, making it a miracle that they finished with a winning record with one of the most pathetic offenses ever.

There's a lot of excitement (believe it or not) for former Yankee Melky Cabrera in the Giants lineup. A testament again to how weak their bats are. But they do get Buster Posey back. Can the NL 2010 Rookie of the Year make a comeback after a devastating left ankle injury incurred from that horrible collision at home plate last May?

And how 'bout them Phillies, who have been perhaps baseball's best, most consistent team for the past five years? They've got some serious injuries to stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to begin this season.
But talk about starting pitching ? they still have Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt in that rotation.

So it's on now ? for virtually every day until late October. So go Rays ? and Giants. And with two extra Wild Card teams making the playoffs this year, there's a slightly greater chance that both teams will make the playoffs.

  • California Angels Albert Pujols is the $240 million man

I'm excited about the baseball season beginning as much as the next fan, but can I say I object to some of the high-falutin' crap that gets written about the game? And no, I'm not referring just to George Will's prose. Actually I blame Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer, his ode to growing up watching the Brookyln Dodgers that was published in 1972.

But seriously, some rather sophisticated people over the years and decades have written some absurdly maudlin stuff about the sanctity of the game, which lost its domain as America's favorite sport to football some time in the mid-1970s.

Look, I dig the game. It's my favorite sport — after college and pro football and pro basketball. But I digress.

The local ballclub, the Tampa Bay Rays, begin the season this Good Friday afternoon in a great position as they host the New York Yankees (whose payroll incidentally is their lowest since 2007, though they still spend more than anybody else in the game).

A lot of folks like the Rays to go far, such as ESPN the magazine, which predicts a rematch of the 2008 World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies. Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated predicts a rematch of the 2002 WS, with the California Angels playing the San Francisco Giants.

And there are some, like some Tampa Trib writers, who predict a Giants-Rays affair. As a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa for a dozen years now, there would be nothing better to contemplate from this fan's perspective.

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