With October somehow now six months back in our rear-view mirrors, baseball season seeped upon us Tuesday morning in Japan bearing the hopes that an epic postseason and a dramatic offseason can offset the ‘roid-raging storm clouds actively stealing the game’s positive juices (so as to inject them and obtain a “competitive advantage”). Without making any inane predictions, here’s a sampling of whom to look out for over the next six months. As Ben Stiller and Jimmy Fallon would attest, the H is O for these nine.

9) Mark Buehrle. The Central Division has become the bastard stepchild of the American League, fighting harder than William Hung to be recognized as legitimate. The White Sox are in the thick of the race with the Twins (on their way down) and the Royals (on their way up). The Twins’ bullpen and ability to continue to compete on such a low budget are question marks, and the Royals are as of yet unproven. The White Sox have the bats to contend, but Buehrle will have to return to his 2002 form to anchor a rotation hurt by the loss of Bartolo Colon to Anaheim.

8) Tim Hudson/Mark Mulder/Barry Zito. Once again, these three form the basis for any and all hope coming out of the east side of the Bay Area. Even with the addition of Rich Harden, however, these three will bear more of the burden than ever thanks to the losses of Miguel Tejada, Ramon Hernandez and recently Mark Ellis (to injury). Hudson, Zito and Mulder held the nearly undisputed mantle of the best pitching trio in baseball for four seasons and failed to win a postseason series once. With the Cubs, Red Sox, Astros and Yankees all bolstering their staffs, not only may Oakland’s run in the West be finished, but the talented troika might no longer have their place at the top of the game.

7) Gary Sheffield. Looking at it objectively, the Yankees didn’t upgrade significantly on offensive, trading the production of Aaron Boone, Nick Johnson and Alfonso Soriano for Alex Rodriguez, Kenny Lofton and Miguel Cairo/Enrique Wilson. The major improvement in the Bombers’ lineup comes in right field with the addition of Sheffield. Will the surly slugger have the composure to deal with New York, or will his early public criticism of the way Brian Cashman and George Steinbrenner publicly dealt with his spring thumb injury blossom into ever-more-eloquent anti-establishment diatribes?

6) J.D. Drew. An overhyped prospect, who refused to sign with the first team that drafted him (Philadelphia) and then never blossomed fully in St. Louis, is being counted on to fill the power void left by the defections of Sheffield and Javy Lopez to the AL East and help extend the Braves’ incredible run of 12 straight division titles. Would anyone invest money in a tour by a reformed B2K without the services of frontman Omarion? Don’t bet on Atlanta being able to continue its ridiculous streak without Greg Maddux and its two best power threats.

5) Joe Torre. The last two months have been the winter of content in New York. The A-Rod trade and the subsequent love-in led to the resigning of Mariano Rivera (who previously had refused to talk extension) and the rejuvenation of the Yanks’ erstwhile skipper, who now says he wants to return in 2005. All the goodwill will be out the window if New York isn’t in first place by May. And if the Boss starts breathing fire again, Torre simply may not care enough this time to cater to his wishes. If all the feelings of resent come flooding back (the ones Don Zimmer is so anxious to discuss these days), Torre might run an independent ship, which could lead to the promotion of Willie Randolph or Don Mattingly.

4) Frank McCourt. The new owner of the Dodgers has promised to add a bat (or three) to his team’s woefully impotent lineup, and he needs to deliver. With Kevin Brown gone and Eric Gagne unlikely to have another perfect season, the best staff in baseball from last season is going to need the lineup to provide a little more support than the dynamic 3.5 runs per game and .243 team batting average that set the National League ablaze last season.

3) Curt Schilling. Just a quick question: if the Yankees had traded for A-Rod without a hiccup in November and then botched a trade for Schilling in January allowing the ace to go to Boston, would New York fans be as thrilled as they are right now? Immediately following the Yankees’ loss in the World Series and Roger Clemens’ Keith Jackson-esque retirement, Steinbrenner declared Schilling his primary target. Flying under the radar, the Red Sox swooped in and swiped the gregarious righty. Now he’s charged with ending an 86-year drought. Relax Curt, no big deal.

2) Larry Bowa. The Phillies are poised to overtake the Braves in the NL East, but the big question is whether they will do it with or without their embattled manager. Last year they almost rallied to the Wild Card with their players uniting in mutual dislike of their manager. If Philly slides early in its new ballpark, ownership might be quick with the hook.

1) Bud Selig/Donald Fehr/Gene Orza. For an agreement on banned substances to be reached, both sides of the labor line — typically more rigid than any “rise” Cialis could ever hope to induce — have to dismount their high horses and actually work together to achieve meaningful progress — and, as Cassandra wisely notes, if a frog had wings it wouldn’t bump its ass when it hopped.