The Senior Circuit lost some weight in the offseason, and its 15 teams are ready to fight out for a chance to become the League´s fourth World Series winner in a row. Of course, it all starts by getting into the playoffs and trying to catch lightning in a bottle (right, Giants?). The full playoff odds have not been released, but at least we have been treated with very interesting MLB future bets regarding division winners.
In this exercise, we will review the numbers for all 3 NL divisions, trying to find the best bets available and making an educated prediction of who shall come out on top come October.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Phillies (+235): The stranglehold the Phillies kept on the NL East was pretty remarkable, averaging 96 wins from 2008 to 2011, and peaking at 102 during that final year. However, the core of that team has faded due to age, injuries and a lack of talent injection. The 2013 projected lineup includes the likes of Michael Young (-2.4 WAR last year), Laynce Nix (10-year career WAR of 3.6), Domonic Brown (-1.8 career WAR), and will miss Carlos Ruiz to a 50-game suspension to start the year. Even with the top-heavy rotation of Hamels-Halladay-Lee, it seems pretty hard to win with a batting order that seems like a sure out from 5 to 9, and that relies on the shaky knees of Chase Utley and the shaky everything of Ryan Howard to produce something at the top of the lineup. In all fairness, +235 seems too low for Philadelphia, and would only have value if it were closer to +400 or above.
Braves (+190): a very intriguing line for a very intriguing team. The Braves have finished consecutive seasons in heart-breaking fashion against teams wearing red caps, and rather than sulking in their own misery, they now face 2013 without Chipper but with a new identity. A rotation that features Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen and Baseball America´s #1 prospect Julio Teherán figures to keep the Braves in every game, and the offense highlighted by both Upton brothers promises a fun summer in the ATL. However, while the Braves seem a sure bet to make the postseason, we think it should come via the Wild Card.
Nationals (+135): The Nats´ over/under total has now steadily crept over 90 wins in several books, and even with the Braves´ busy offseason appear as a prohibitive favorite at only +135 to win the division. After all, the 5-man rotation is projected to win over 10 games apiece, and accumulate close to 20 wins above replacement. A full season of Strasburg-mania, a shut-down bullpen and a lineup that has power, speed and contact, appear to be too much for the rest of the division. Take the +135 and enjoy the ride.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
It is common to associate the NL Central with mediocrity, but it has actually averaged 94.4 wins per division winner in the past 5 years (4th in baseball), though it has been the only division in baseball with 4 different winners in the same span. Now that the Astros are gone, it will be really interesting to see how the top teams in the division fare. The Reds will face Houston 3 times, the Cardinals 4 and Pittsburgh also 3. The dynamic of the division will change, and probably the number of wins it takes to be crowned NL Central champion will be reduced. While the Cubs (+1200) are poised for one more season of pain, and the Brewers (+500) just don´t seem to have it in them, the rest of the Central has a legitimate chance.
Cardinals (+180): if they re-sign Kyle Lohse, we may reconsider against picking a team that had three match points to get to the World Series last year, but as of now, the Cards are heading into 2013 with more ifs than sure things. The loss of Chris Carpenter laves the rotation to Adam Wainwright and 4 wild cards, and trusting the offense to players who are likely to regress (Carlos Beltrán and Yadier Molina come to mind) don´t project a winning formula, even with a ton of uber-prospects waiting in the wings. While the Birds are likely to avoid their first losing season since 2007, the division seems out of their reach.
Reds (-105): the Reds are the only NL team with negative odds to win their division, as everything seems to be clear-cut for them and repeat as NL Central champions. After all, it seems pretty nice to upgrade your rotation just by adding a 100-mph fireballer from the bullpen, and also plugging a .380 career OBP centerfielder to bat leadoff, while leaving the rest of the team intact. Even with all that, let´s remember that the Reds´ rotation was remarkably healthy in 2012, with the team jumping from 79 to 97 wins in only a year. Following the Plexiglass Principle and the randomness of player health, Cincinnati seems doomed to fall back to earth. Even as the Redlegs look like a playoff team in paper, there are always surprises in baseball, which leaves us with a shocking pick.
Pirates (+800): when the Pirates outbid the Yankees (!!!) for Russell Martin´s services, they not only upgraded their weakest position (Pirates´ catchers combined for a total of 0.7 WAR and just an 11% caught stealing rate in 2012), they also showed the baseball world that 2011 and 12´s late-season collapses really hurt, and that they are ready to take the next step. After 20 consecutive losing seasons, Pittsburgh seems like a well-rounded team, in position to surprise everybody. Taking a low-risk, high-reward flyer on Francisco Liriano, while having a full season of Wandy Rodríguez and post-Yankees AJ Burnett on top of the rotation promises to match any top-3 combo in the Central, while the offense seems revamped with Andrew McCutchen and (hopefully) full seasons from Neil Walker and Travis Snider. Taking the over on the posted total of 79 wins for the Pirates appears to be the safer bet, but if you, like us, trust Pittsburgh, why not both? Take the Pirates at 8 to 1, and you will be even happier than the nice people of the Steel City.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
With games that go well past midnight in the east coast, the NL West has sometimes become an afterthought in the minds of many baseball fans, even as some of the best pitchers in the world reside in the western time zone and the division has had 3 World Series contenders in the last 6 years. As we await the start of the 2013 season (only a month left!), the interest in the NL West has greatly increased, as the Dodgers are becoming the Miami Heat of baseball and a lot of people simply want to see them fail, even when they haven´t held a team presentation as obnoxious as this one.
In a division where the status-quo has usually been parity, 2013 promises to be top-heavy with a yearlong race between the Giants and the Dodgers. It is easy to dismiss the Rockies (+1500) and count out the emerging Padres (+1100), and even as the Diamondbacks (+575) offer value with that line, these 3 teams will probably just battle to trip up the big boys of the division while developing their young players for 2014 and beyond.
Dodgers (Even): most of our thoughts on the Dodgers have already been spread out in a previous piece, but while the over/under on the team appears to be a fair assessment on their chances, having them at even money to win the division just doesn´t seem to be wise. After all, when you make a player-by-player analysis against the Giants, the Dodgers may have the upper hand with the likes of Kershaw, Kemp and Adrián González, but the folks at San Francisco appear to be a better all-around team that has been tested time and again. If this line was neutral and didn´t reflect the Dodger allure of being a public team, it would be closer to +150, as it should. Having said that, once the full playoffs odds come out, LA´s chances to win a wild card appear to be a good bet, but as long as this line remains unmoved, steer clear.
Giants (+160): so it is not the Pirates at +800, but for a team that is coming off two championships in three years, the Giants are still getting no respect from the betting world, and that is where this line´s value resides. Following the “if it ain´t broke, don´t fix it” formula, San Francisco is expected to send out practically the same team that won the division and the World Series in 2012. The key to the Giants´ chances still resides in the rotation, which promises to still be excellent; using the same projection system we mentioned in Washington´s preview, all 5 Giants in the rotation are expected to hover around 200 innings, win at least 10 games and produce a combined value north of 17 WAR. Also, the lineup with MVP Buster Posey, World Series hero Pablo Sandoval and a full season of physics-hating Hunter Pence appears to be a good mix with a supporting cast of Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagán and Brandon Belt. The Giants thrive being under the radar, and an over/under number of 86 along with this line just seem disrespectful. Take the Giants at +160 with a lot of confidence.
Let us know what you think in the comments below!