The Astros jump from the National League to the American League. Josh Hamilton bolts from the Rangers to the rival Angels. A big (expensive) chunk of the Marlins’ roster gets shipped north of the border to Toronto. The Nationals are a consensus favorite to make the playoffs, while the Yankees and Red Sox aren’t. Alex Rodriguez is injured and caught in a performance-enhancing-drug scandal …
OK, so maybe not everything about Major League Baseball is unprecedented heading into the 2013 season. But a good bit of it certainly is, making handicapping win totals as challenging a task as teaching the Dodgers’ owners the meaning of fiscal restraint. And while predictive analysis has become much easier in the digital age, no amount of research could’ve forecast something like the Orioles—who hadn’t won more than 79 games since 1997—leaping from 69 victories in 2011 to 93 in 2012. Or the Red Sox, who posted at least 86 wins from 2002-2011, plummeting to 69 victories last year. (Actually, with Bobby Valentine calling the shots in Boston, the latter wasn’t all that unpredictable.)
Nevertheless, win-total wagers remain the single best way for gamblers—regardless of bankroll size—to have action essentially every day of the grueling 162-game season. Which brings me to my five National League season over/under best bets (I’ll highlight the American League next week). One thing to keep in mind before deciding whether to follow or fade this advice: Over the past three seasons, I’ve hit exactly two-thirds of my NFL win-total recommendations, going 52-25-1, including 22-9-1 in 2012. Seriously.
Dodgers UNDER 91.5: The blank-check business plan continued over the winter in Los Angeles, with free-agent pitcher Zack Greinke becoming the latest to cash in with a six-year, $147 million contract. With a $213 million payroll—baseball’s highest this year—and a roster littered with All-Stars, the Dodgers are certainly doing their best to buy victories. Too bad they can’t buy chemistry. To that point, L.A. was 42-25 on June 17 last year, made its blockbuster trade with Boston a few weeks later and finished 86-76 (needing a meaningless 7-1 finish just to get there). Another reason to think the Dodgers will be singing the blues this summer: Since winning the 1988 World Series, L.A. has eclipsed 91 victories exactly four times.
Padres OVER 74.5: Quick: Name San Diego’s No. 3 starter. Or left fielder. Or second baseman. Too late. But then you couldn’t have done so a year ago either, and yet the Padres still reached 76 victories, going 48-36 from June 30 forward. Because the Padres (smartly) tailored their roster to their spacious home ballpark—opting for pitching, speed and defense over three-run-homer types—they’ve insulated themselves from those season-killing, double-digit losing streaks. That explains why this oft-underestimated club has finished with fewer than 75 wins just twice since 2004.
Cardinals OVER 86: St. Louis ought to make the Oakland Raiders an offer for their “Just Win, Baby” slogan. St. Louis has finished above .500 in 12 of the last 13 seasons (leading to nine playoff appearances). The best compliment you can pay the Cardinals: In 2011, with Albert Pujols manning first base and Tony La Russa manning the dugout, they won 90 games (and the World Series). Last year, with Pujols in Anaheim and Mike Matheny in the dugout, they won 88 (and just missed returning to the Fall Classic).
Phillies OVER 83.5: After five consecutive NL East titles—and nine straight seasons of at least 85 victories—Philadelphia flopped to 81-81 in 2012. Of course, that’s what happens when injuries limit your ace pitcher (Roy Halladay) to 25 starts and two of your best players (Ryan Howard and Chase Utley) to a combined 154 games (out of a possible 324). Perhaps I’m crazy, but me thinks a 1-2-3 punch of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and a healthy Halladay—plus 38 games against the Mets and Marlins—will push the Phillies into playoff contention.
Pirates UNDER 77.5: In late July last year, Pittsburgh was 58-42 … yet finished 79-83. And that was with 17 games against the shitty Astros. This year, the Pirates draw Houston just three times. Actually, let me come at this from a different perspective: A Pirates fan who was born the last time this franchise won more than 79 games will celebrate his 21st birthday this year.