Florida who? In Vegas,
it’s Yankees-Boston

Dec 16, 2003 5:03 AM

The Florida Marlins may be the world championships, but any baseball discussion seems to always begin with the New York Yankees.

The Palms and Stardust sports books helped spice the piping hot rivalry between the Yanks and the Boston Red Sox into the offseason, making the American League archrivals 3-1 co-favorites to capture the 2004 World Series.

Each Las Vegas book lists the Marlins at 15-1, ranking 12th among the 30 major league teams.

It’s been punch followed by counterpunch with Boston acquiring stud P Curt Schilling from Arizona and the Yanks responding with the signing of P Javier Vazquez (Montreal) and the acquisitions of OF Gary Sheffield (Atlanta) and P Kevin Brown (Los Angeles).

The Red Sox entertained the prospect of sending OF Manny Ramirez to Texas and popular SS Nomar Garciaparra to LA in a blockbuster three-way deal that would have brought prized SS Alex Rodriguez to Fenway Park. Instead, the Sox signed last year’s top AL closer Keith Foulke from Oakland.

Naturally, the Mets were not about to let the Yanks steal all the headlines. The Amazins signed SS Kazuo Matsui, a 7-time Japanese All Star and 3-time Gold Glove winner. Matsui, who batted .305 with 33 HR and 84 RBI for the Seibu Lions last year, is no relation to the Matsui playing in The Bronx. The Mets are now an enticing 40-1 at the Stardust, 30-1 at Palms.

While the media focuses on George Steinbrenner’s next move, lurking closely behind in the World Series picture are the Chicago Cubs (4-1 Stardust and 6-1 Palms), along with Atlanta and San Francisco (each 7-1 at the Dust, 10-1 Palms). The Cubs established themselves as the team to beat in the NL Central after dealing with Florida for Gold Glove 1B Derrek Lee and acquiring hard-throwing reliever LaTroy Hawkins from Minnesota.

Perhaps the best early play might be Philadelphia (12-1 Palms, 10-1 Stardust), which acquired All-Star closer Billy Wagner from Houston to address a major weakness in protecting leads in the eighth and ninth inning. The Astros (20-1 Palms, 15-1 Stardust) made up for the loss of Wagner by signing left-hander Andy Pettitte, who was 21-7 last year for the Yanks.

An early longshot play worth a look is San Diego (40-1 Palms, 50-1 Stardust). The Padres began making in-roads late last year when they picked up slugger Brian Giles from Pittsburgh. In the offseason, San Diego further strengthened itself by re-signing injured closer Trevor Hoffman and veteran set-up man Rod Beck, along with sending Mark Kotsay to Oakland in a deal that brought OF Terrence Long and All Star C Ramon Hernandez.

The 2002 world champion Anaheim Angels (20-1 at both books) are another team that appears to have helped themselves with the acquisition of All-Star right-handed P Bartolo Colon from the Chicago White Sox. Colon is the No. 1 starter that the Angels lacked last year when they failed to make the playoffs.