The start of a new baseball season is something akin to baptism. It’s officially clean slate time, meaning anyone can bask in the glow of what could be before reality comes crashing down around them – roughly April 23rd if you’re a Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

For the Red Sox, Daisuke Matsuzaka’s first month of work will be telling. We’ve hitched our 2007 wagon to his star, and if the guy can’t adjust – although his first two starts suggest he’ll be just fine – we may be turning our attentions back to porno by mid-July.

But the Sox aren’t the only team with question marks, so we figured with the 2007 season officially underway, we’d size up the competition and present ‘em in the order we expect ‘em to finish in.

1. New York Yankees: I hate ‘em. You hate ‘em. You grandmother’s dog hates ‘em. And it seems like forever since we’ve finished a season in which we weren’t staring ‘em in the ass in the final standings. But the Yankees always seem to pull that ace at the last minute to push themselves over the finish line. We’ve been holding Yankees elimination parties for decades now, only to watch them speed past us in late September, so what’s the point? Just suck it up, take our medicine, and hope that when/if we face them in the playoffs, we can pull a 2004 on ‘em.

Pros: That line-up is one of the toughest in the major leagues, capable of wearing out the tightest pitching staffs. And they’ve got deep pockets to back everything up; if one of his All Stars goes lame, King George can simply find another one to take his place. For all the shyte we love to give him, A-Rod is still one of the best in the game, and there’s always the fear he’ll lock in and go all Transformers on the AL East. With all the negative press he’s been getting of late, this could be that year. Scary.

Cons: The pitching staff is suspect. Chien-Min Wang, one of last year’s surprises, will start the season on the DL. Carl Pavano is coming off an injury-wasted season with a lot of expectations on his shoulders. Mike Mussina, that smug motherf–ker, is another year older and now he’s got the jimmy leg. And Sox Killer Andy Pettitte is always an injury risk. Of course, the swing vote comes in the form of Roger Clemens, and the Yanks seem convinced they’ll be landing him sometime this summer. No team seems more universally despised, and all that negative energy has got to take its toll. After all, there’s a reason the most expensive team in all of baseball hasn’t won a World Series in six years, right?

2. Boston Red Sox: What? Second place for the Sox? Red, are you f–king crazy? No, ma’am, I am not. Let’s just say, I like to aim small, so as not to upset the Gods of Baseball Karma. Lots of teams have their question marks, but the 2007 Sox just seem to have so many – and in so many critical areas, like, y’know, pitching and offense — that it seems the only thing that can ensure a championship season for us would be for all the dominos to fall exactly the way we want them to. It can happen – 2004 stands as proof of this – but it’s more often the exception than the rule.

Pros: So long as you have a healthy Manny Ramirez and a healthy David Ortiz in your line-up, you’re gonna score some runs. So we have that going for us. Daisuke Matsuzaka could be every bit as dominant as he’s been in Japan. Curt Schilling, who even his detractors must admit is a driven competitor, could put up one of his best seasons ever. J.D. Drew, knowing he’s under the microscope, could pull a Mike Lowell and exceed expectations — christ, he’s already tearing it up two weeks in. And with the Papel-Bot closing, we know we’ve got someone who can protect skinny leads in the ninth inning.

Cons: The offense could be this team’s undoing. I look at this line-up and see a lot of names – Lugo, Youkilis, Lowell, Pedroia, Varitek, Crisp – that could very well become automatic outs. If Tek can’t reclaim his mojo at the plate and Crisp continues to funk and Lugo goes all Renteria on us and Pedroia can’t handle the big league stuff and Youk and Lowell drop a few notches, local liquor stores, pubs and escort agencies may want to prep for a spike in business. And if Matsuzaka turns out to be a bust in his first season with the Sox, I’d be lying of I didn’t say a little piece of my heart will crumble to dust. I mean, we know that’s not gonna happen. But still.

3. Toronto Blue Jays: Last year, these sneaky dudes from the Great White North unseated the Sox as perennial second-placers in the AL East. This year, they seem even more imposing, at least on paper. Embracing the spirit of Joe Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, the Jays are poised to make the division a three horse race, god love ‘em.

Pros: First off, any team with guys named Royce, Tomo, Lyle, Gustavo and Gregg with double Gs is more than deserving of your attention. If nothing else, the 2007 Blue Jays can boast the coolest names in perhaps all of baseball, and it’s further testament to the wizardry of GM J.P. Ricciardi. Second, they’ve got a line-up that, when everyone’s locked in, could absolutely torment an opposing pitcher. Across the AL in 2006, the Jays ranked third in batting average (.284), third in hits (1591) and fourth in home runs (199), and now they’ve added Frank Thomas to a mix that already includes Troy Glaus, Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay. Last year, Thomas was the comeback player of the season, hitting .270 with 39 homers and 114 RBIs. The pitching staff could be their undoing, but it ain’t too shabby, either; this year, the spotlight on A.J. Burnett won’t be as intense as it was in 2006, meaning the guy might just relax, find a groove and get that killer curveball working again. If he avoids injury and reclaims his mojo, Burnett could combine with Roy Halladay to activate Wonder Twin Powers and create one of the most formidable one-two punches in the division. If.

Cons: Dude, they’ve got a closer named “B.J.” That tells you everything you need to know.

4. Baltimore Orioles: Camden Yards may be the second best ballpark in the world to watch a game, but the team it’ll be showcasing this year seems destined to underachieve. Still, the possiblity of a pantsless Kevin Millar sprinting from the dugout during the seventh-inning stretch should keep Baltimore fans riveted to their seats.

Pros: Despite looking like a guy who should be selling mowers at The Home Depot, Erik Bedard was a 15-game winner last season, and he’s one of the biggest reasons to watch the Os in 2007. Newly-added Aubrey Huff, while not quite the offensive threat he was in his Devil Rays days, could prove a nice pick-up. And you can never underestimate the power of Millar Mojo. Also, Boog’s Barbecue Beef sammiches keep the crowd in a constant state of red meat-fueled delirium, meaning any one of the crazy bastards could charge the field at any time, giving the hometown team a decided edge.

Cons: No good can come from a pitching staff that includes perennial dink Jaret Wright. And no Kris Benson (out for the season with a shoulder injury) means no Anna Benson making a tequila-fueled grab for your eggs and sausage at team cookouts. That’s gotta hurt.

6. Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Alright, despite my lame attempt at humor, the Rays are certainly not going to finish “sixth” in a division of five teams. Or are they? Seriously, though, they’re young, this D-Rays team. And they’re scrappy. And they play the Sox really, really hard. And, er. Did I mention they’re scrappy? I did? Oh well. Whatever. June 23 is Don Zimmer Bobblehead night at the Trop. We’ll wake you up for that.

Pros: As Sox fans know all too well, the Rays – especially under former manager Lou Pinella – are a feisty bunch, not afraid to throwdown whenever they see fit. They also seem to turn it on quite well against the best of the division, and handed the Sox one of the most crushing defeats of 2006 – that early August monstrosity that saw our pen blow a 6-2 lead with 9 outs to go. Some incredibly good young talent like Carl Crawford, Rocco “P. Coltrane” Baldelli, Delmon “My brother’s gonna skin you alive” Young, and BJ Upton that could blossom into a formidable power. Scott Kazmir is as tough a lefty as they come, and nothing would make me happier than seeing him in a Red Sox uniform.

Cons: The young’uns may need a few years to truly gell, and unless the front office can clone Scott Kazmir, pitchers like Casey Fossum, Jae Seo and Shawn Camp aren’t going to carry them very far. Meaning that once again, the Rays seem destined to swab the decks of the AL East. Also, there’s that mascot that rides the scooter.