Separating baseball’s wheat from the chaff


Justin Masterson has been impressive for the quick-starting Indians.

The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals—two teams that lost a total of 188 games last year and entered 2011 with a combined payroll of $85 million—raced out to a combined 22-10 start this season, putting them atop the American League Central standings.

The Boston Red Sox—they of the $161 million payroll—dropped 10 of their first 12 games and have been residing in the AL East basement.

The reigning AL Cy Young Award winner (Seattle’s Felix Hernandez) went 1-2 with a 4.33 ERA in his first four starts, his numbers dwarfed by the likes of the Rangers’ Matt Harrison (3-0, 1.23) and the Indians’ Justin Masterson (3-0, 1.33). On the offensive side, three-time MVP Albert Pujols was batting .150 with one home run and four RBIs through his first nine games, while Cleveland shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who had nine home runs in his first 904 major league at-bats, had four long balls in his first 41 at-bats this season.

I think you get where I’m going here: The start of the 2011 baseball season hasn’t just been Charlie Sheen-crazy. It’s been Charlie Manson-crazy. Not that this is some kind of aberration; every spring there are early-season surprises. The trick is to identify which of the storylines will sustain through the dog days of summer and into the fall, and which will be exposed as flukes long before you fire up the grill on Memorial Day.

Those handicappers and bettors who accurately solve both puzzles will enjoy a long, profitable baseball season. Those who swing and miss with their forecast, well, there’s always football season … college football, anyway.

This week, I put on my prognostication helmet, step up to the plate and try to make sense of the insanity, offering my opinion of what to expect in the coming weeks and months (with my bankroll holding at $7,636).

STOCK UP: As soon as they inked pitcher Cliff Lee over the winter, the Phillies became the overwhelming favorite to win the National League pennant (if not the World Series). They also became pretty much unbettable. Because with few exceptions, whenever the Phillies hand the ball to Lee or fellow All-Stars Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt or Cole Hamels, they’re going to be such prohibitive favorites that they won’t offer any value from a wagering perspective. That is, unless you play the run line, meaning Philadelphia has to win by at least two runs, something it did seven times in its first 14 games—not exactly a profitable endeavor.

Rather, the NL club I’m looking to get behind is the Rockies. Colorado won 12 of its first 16 games, and that was with zero help from ace pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez (who went on the disabled list after his opening day start). The Rockies have two legitimate superstars in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, and while their pitchers may not be household names, there’s plenty of depth beyond Jimenez.

I believe there’s also money to be made on the Nationals (Washington boasts a young, talented lineup that’s backed by a pitching staff loaded with young, power arms); A’s (Oakland’s starting staff ranks up there with any in baseball outside of Philadelphia; the only question is will the A’s hit enough?); Twins (much better than their 5-10 record to start the season); and Braves and Brewers (both have superior pitching and offenses that haven’t hit yet but eventually will).

STOCK DOWN: As a fan, I would love nothing more than to see the Indians and Royals hang around all summer (much like the Padres in 2010, when they were expected to be among baseball’s worst teams yet entered the final day of the regular season with a chance to make the playoffs). However, as someone hired to offer wagering advice to the public, I gotta call it like I (fore)see it, and my “fluke” alarm is deafening right now.

The good news for both Kansas City and Cleveland? They’re in a weak division. The bad news? Neither has the pitching depth nor offensive firepower to hold off more complete teams such as the Twins and White Sox. This is not to say that there won’t be opportunities to cash in on both clubs, but my money says both will be .500 teams by Father’s Day.

Joining the Indians and Royals on my “fade” list are the Tigers (Detroit’s offense will have to be ’27 Yankees-like to cover up an awful bullpen); Angels (the Halos have enough offense to win consistently when aces Jered Weaver and Dan Haren are on the mound, but not enough to support the rest of a mediocre staff); and Dodgers (L.A. has two reliable run-producers in Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, one reliable starting pitcher in Clayton Kershaw and a 300-pound closer in Jonathan Broxton, who can protect a buffet table a lot better than he can a ninth-inning lead).

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