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On Sunday, Major League Baseball Rule 5.01 was invoked three times and the 2016 season officially began.

Although popular convention suggests games start when the home plate umpire utters the familiar phrase “Play Ball” that is technically only half correct. Rule 5.01 actually states, “At the time set for beginning the game the players of the home team shall take their defensive positions, the first batter of the visiting team shall take his position in the batter’s box, the umpire-in-chief shall call ‘Play,’ and the game shall start.”

This bit of trivia could come in handy if you are inclined to make a friendly bar wager, but be sure to note it is the rule itself, not the caption preceding the rule, that decides the wager.

The baseball season has been accurately described as “a marathon and not a sprint” and while a strong start is a positive in any sport the long six months can take its toll, with most teams experiencing highs and lows along the way. After all, baseball’s 162 game regular season is effectively double that of both the NBA and NHL.

And since this is the first column for the 2016 season it is only appropriate to add yet another set of previews and predictions.

Here’s a brief preview with Divisional overviews and a prediction of the teams to make the Playoffs and ultimately play in the World Series and produce the 2016 Champion.

National League

The three Divisions have a number of similarities, most notable is strength at the top and weakness at the bottom. Each of the Divisions has two teams expected to be far from contending not very deep into the season.

The NL East may be the most stratified Division in that two teams are clearly the best, one is pretty much at .500 and two among the worst in baseball. Washington is expected to rebound from last season’s disappointment and challenge the New York Mets for the Division title.

Miami is forecast to be improved, if ace pitcher Jose Fernandez and slugger Giancarlo Stanton can stay healthy. If so, the Marlins have an excellent shot at finishing slightly above .500. Both Atlanta and Philadelphia are in the midst of rebuilding programs and are thought to be at least a season or two away from being competitive.

The NL Central was baseball’s top heavy Division in 2015 with St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Chicago combining to win 295 games. The Cubs are solid favorites to win with St. Louis, and to a lesser extent the Pirates, expected to regress. The Cardinals won 100 games last season but with several key losses in the offseason have a season win total of 87, a decline of 13 games.

Pittsburgh is expected to be the Cubs’ primary challenger but it would be dangerous to dismiss St. Louis based on the long successful track record of the organization. Both Cincinnati and Milwaukee are expected to finish well behind the top three Central teams.

It’s 2016 and thus the San Francisco Giants are expected to contend for a fourth consecutive even numbered season World Series title. With proven starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija joining ace Madison Bumgarner, baseball’s G-Men have upgraded the starting rotation and possess a balanced lineup.

Arizona and the LA Dodgers are expected to also contend with the Diamondbacks, having a chance to surpass the gap after having signed new ace Zack Greinke who pitched last season for the Dodgers. Both San Diego and Colorado are expected to finish well behind the aforementioned trio.

American League

The Divisions are expected to be more evenly balanced than their National League brethren. The AL East figures to be the second most contentious of the six Divisions with no truly great or pathetic team. The gap between the teams with the greatest projected wins (Boston and Toronto at 87.5) and the fewest (Baltimore at 78) is just 9.5 games. Toronto appears to have the much better overall roster than do the Red Sox whereas Baltimore appears to have the weakest in the Division.

The major concerns for both Boston and the Orioles is the depth of the starting rotation. At least Boston has David Price as its ace. Baltimore has no starter who might be better than the third best starter on most other teams. The concern with the Yankees is the age and injury history of expected key contributors. Tampa Bay will stay competitive with its pitching but a lack of offense should keep them from being a contender.

The most contentious Division in baseball should be the AL Central in which the gap in projected wins between the best team (Cleveland, 86.5) and the projected doormat (Minnesota, 80) is just 6.5. Cleveland will rely on one of baseball’s best rotations.

Kansas City, the defending World Series champs, don’t rate out highly according to masters of sabermetrics (which often undervalues bullpens) but has a solid roster that seeks a third straight trip to the World Series. Detroit may be a surprise contender with a starting rotation that added Jordan Zimmermann from Washington and can boast what appears to be a finally fully healthy former Cy Young Award winner in Justin Verlander.

The AL West is considered a toss-up between a pair of teams that made surprise trips to the Playoffs last season – Division winning Texas and first Wild Card Houston. The Astros are a popular pick to win the AL pennant based on the improvement the youth laden team showed last season with shortstop Carlos Correa a popular choice to win AL MVP.

There is a concern the Astros – who won 51 games in 2013 and 70 games in 2014 before winning 86 games last season – could be due for a regression or stagnation after showing a 35 game improvement in just two seasons. If indeed this occurs, do not be surprised if Seattle shows a significant improvement this season after winning just 76 games last season. The Mariners had shown a major improvement in going from 71 wins in 2013 to 87 in 2014, setting the stage for last season’s decline. Both the LA Angels and Oakland are projected to win fewer than 80 games.

Entering the season it appears 2016 will be a season with quite a number of very good teams capable of finishing more than 10 games above .500 and an equal number of teams capable of finishing more than 10 games below break-even.

The forecast from this columnist projects the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants to win Divisions in the NL with Arizona and Washington earning the two Wild Cards and Pittsburgh just missing out.

The American League forecast has Toronto, Kansas City and Texas as Division winners with Cleveland and Seattle earning the Wild Cards, just edging out Houston.

In the League Championship Series the predictions are for Toronto to defeat Seattle in the AL and for the Cubs to get past San Francisco in the NL to set up a Cubs vs. Blue Jays World Series.

It took nearly a full century for Boston to end its World Series drought but the Sox finally did so in 2004. The Cubs’ drought has lasted a bit more than a full century but this could be the year it finally ends.

Sure, the Cubs are a very popular World Series choice each season at the betting windows and in the huge majority of those seasons their realistic chances are remote. But things are different in 2016 and what gives the Cubs a very realistic shot is their connection to the Red Sox.

In just his second season as Boston’s general manager, Theo Epstein constructed a team that won the 2004 World Series. Epstein left the Red Sox after the 2011 season to become president of the Cubs. After revamping the roster that started with a commitment to minor league player acquisition and development, Epstein hired highly regarded manager Joe Maddon prior to the 2015 season.

Maddon guided the Cubs to 97 wins – an improvement of 24 wins over 2014 – and a trip to the NLCS in which the Cubs lost to the Mets. In what will be Maddon’s second and Epstein’s fifth season with the Cubs the ingredients for a World Series title are there, especially following some key acquisitions made to improve both the pitching and the offense in the offseason.

Opening week always presents challenges for the linemaker, handicapper and bettor: Staggered starts to the season that often feature teams having multiple off days in their opening series with Opening Days spread out over several days.

In future columns several upcoming weekend series will be previewed with thoughts on the best potential wagering opportunities being offered with the goal of “grinding out” a profit over the six months of regular season play.

As a general rule for betting April baseball, it never hurts to look for underdogs, especially those with a quality starting pitcher. Much of the pricing of games in April is based upon 2015 performance with adjustments made for key personnel changes made in the offseason.

Often teams that are underdogs in April are favorites by June.

Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to GamingToday readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Email: [email protected]

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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