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Ppplay, Bbball

Apr 1, 2003 6:55 AM

The 2003 baseball season began with defending World Series champion Anaheim losing to last place Texas in the AL West. But, there’s 161 games left for the best teams to emerge victorious.

For handicappers, traditionally the quality of a team’s pitching has been the most important factor in picking winners both on a day to day basis and in futures play. However, over the past few decades the emphasis on starting pitching has declined greatly with the increased use of a team’s bullpen and the sharp decline in the number of complete games pitched.

The emphasis on a team’s bullpen has taken on added importance with the utilization of long relievers, middle men, setup pitchers and the all important closer. Teams with the better overall balance in their pitching staffs should emerge as playoff contenders. Underdogs in April are likely to be favorites in August.

Each year we have tried, with varying degrees of success, to forecast the division winners, wild cards and ultimate World Series champion. The future book odds offer little in the way of value in terms of betting the favored teams so often it is best to look at teams with legitimate wild card chances.

Using quality and depth of starting pitching as a guide, here are a pair of teams that might have a good shot at the Playoffs at generous odds.

Montreal has solid starting pitching with Javier Vazquez, Tony Armas Jr and Tomo Ohka, along with one of the game’s top players in Vladimir Guerrero. The Expos quietly finished above .500 last season despite being projections to win fewer than 70 games. Manager Frank Robinson had a positive impact and although the Expos will play 20-25 games in Puerto Rico, they could contend in the balanced NL East. At 100-1 to win the World Series, we’re just asking the Expos to make it as a wild card.

Toronto appears poised to make a run at the playoffs despite being 50-1 to win the World Series. Roy Halladay has emerged as one of the top pitchers in the AL. Cory Lidle had a solid season with Oakland last season and the offense is above average with a good mixture of veteran leadership and youth. The Blue Jays have to contend with Boston and the Yankees, which explains the 50-1 price, but fared well against the Bronx Bombers last season.

Forecasting the races is always hazardous because of the injury factor, which can be huge over a 162 game schedule. Philadelphia should edge Montreal in the NL East with the Expos securing the wild card. The Cubs, yes the Cubs, are the choice in the NL Central where it’s projected that fewer than 90 wins will take the title. Arizona is our clear-cut choice in the West with a final margin of at least 10 games.

In the AL East, the Yankees have too potent and balanced a lineup and a wealth of starting pitching that can overcome even prolonged injuries. Toronto will edge Boston for second place. Minnesota is still the choice in the AL Central although the Chicago White Sox should stay in the race. Interestingly, the White Sox are priced at just 10-1 to win the World Series while the defending AL Central champion Twins are 12-1. Chicago finished 13 games behind Minnesota last year.

In the West, Oakland is the choice to win the division with an abundance of starting pitching. Both Anaheim and Seattle will have strong seasons but neither will be able to overtake Toronto for the wild card.

Don’t be surprised if the Atlanta Braves struggle this season. The odds makers have their projected win total pegged at 91½ but it would not be a shock to see the Braves stay around .500 all season.

In the World Series we look for Oakland to defeat Arizona, as new A’s manager Ken Macha is able to do what predecessor Art Howe could not accomplish -- defeating the Yankees in the ALCS. Arizona should get to the Series by ousting Houston in the NLCS.

Here’s a look at some top games being played this weekend.

Cubs at Reds: The Cubs have the edge in overall starting pitching while Cincinnati has the better lineup, especially with a healthy Ken Griffey Jr poised for a big season. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, both of whom are better than any Cincy hurler, lead Chicago’s staff. Either may be backed over the Reds if priced no higher than -125. Give Cincinnati the edge in a tight game with superior closer Scott Williamson. The Reds are the choice when the Cubs start anyone other than Wood or Prior provided the price isn’t more than -130.

Astros at Cards: Much has been made of the off-season signing by Houston of Jeff Kent. The Astros offense might be the best in the league with Kent joining Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio. St Louis also has a potent offense with Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen. Starting pitching depth is a problem for both teams. Houston’s Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller and St Louis’ Matt Morris are the three quality starters. If Morris faces either Oswalt or Miller take UNDER the total. In matchups involving any other pair of pitchers, take underdog and OVER 9.

Red Sox at Orioles: The Red Sox are a deep team, anchored on the mound by Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe and at the plate with Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez. Baltimore has a blend of veterans and youth with manager Mike Hargrove likely to rely more on his young players as the season progresses. Boston will be solid road favorites in this three game series but too highly priced to back. The best route to profits rests with the Orioles in starts by Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson or Rodrigo Lopez. Take the OVER at 9 or lower when anyone other than Martinez or Lowe starts.

Angels at A’s: Oakland clearly has the edge in starting pitching with the trio of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. Give the Angels the nod in the bullpen, especially with closer Troy Percival. The Angels probably have the better 1-9 lineup but the A’s also can score in bunches. Oakland should be favored in each game of this three game series, but Anaheim will be worth backing as a dog of at least +125. Two of the games are at night which makes the UNDER attractive at 8 or more runs.