Smart, Foolish and Bold Bets for Picking MLB Division Winners

Martin FennFeatured Columnist I

Smart, Foolish and Bold Bets for Picking MLB Division Winners

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Everyone loves to make predictions. And sports predictions? Well, it's no surprise the sports betting industry has gotten so expansive.

    Here at Bleacher Report, we thought we'd take a fun approach to the prediction game by highlighting smart, foolish and bold bets to win each division. 

    Real betting odds will play a critical role in the different selections. That means the "smart" bet might be unlikely to be a division favorite if they have overwhelming odds.

    Rather, you can interpret "smart" as a feasible bet that could yield a strong return. Conversely, the "foolish" bet could in fact be a division favorite with slightly overbearing odds, rather than every likely bottom-dweller in each division. Because what kind of fun is that? 

    Let's jump right in.

American League East

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Smart: Tampa Bay Rays (+350; bet $100 to win $350)

    Sure, the Rays traded Blake Snell and are without Charlie Morton. But the position group remains intact, and the bullpen is still as strong and deep as any team in baseball.

    Not to mention, Tampa Bay still has some interesting rotation arms.

    Veterans Rich Hill, Michael Wacha and Chris Archer all make for intriguing adds behind Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough. Then there are the youngsters. Shane McClanahan could be in the majors in no time after an impressive camp. Josh Fleming is an asset, and Luis Patino should figure into the mix. 

    Finally, manager Kevin Cash always seems to get the most out of his teams. We can all express skepticism regarding the decision to pull Snell from Game 6 of the World Series last October, but that one decision doesn't negate Cash's track record of winning.

    Tampa Bay is still a sneaky contender.


    Foolish: New York Yankees (-200)

    Let me be clear: I expect the Yankees to win the AL East.

    The Bronx Bombers have arguably the best offense in baseball. New York led the AL in both runs and OPS in 2020 despite injuries to guys like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton as well as down years from both Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres.

    That offense should once again be prolific. The rotation has upside, but it also has a decent amount of dependence on the health of Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon.

    However, the division is just deeper. The Red Sox should be much improved. Toronto is on the rise, and the Rays—despite possibly sliding back to the field—have a lot of intriguing young arms that could keep the team in the hunt. 

    The competitiveness of the division makes betting on the Yankees a shaky decision when the odds make them the overwhelming favorite and the payout is so minimal.


    Bold: Boston Red Sox (+2000)

    Boston was very nearly my "smart" pick.

    The Red Sox might have finished last in the American League East in 2020, but they have an offense that ranked fifth in the AL in runs scored and third in OPS. That offense should be even better with J.D. Martinez being able to use in-game video and Bobby Dalbec looking scary. 

    More importantly, Boston's rotation should be improved. Eduardo Rodriguez is back and throwing well. Chris Sale should be back from Tommy John surgery sometime this summer. Nick Pivetta has had a good spring, with Garrett Richards also joining the fold. 

    There are still questions as to just how effective Boston's rotation will be. But the Red Sox should score plenty of runs and have ample versatility on the roster. They could pull it off.

    Those odds are quite enticing.


    Other Teams: Toronto Blue Jays (+350), Baltimore Orioles (+5200)

American League Central

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Smart: Cleveland (+700)

    Cleveland finished just one game back of the AL Central title last season. Francisco Lindor is gone. But he had a rough offensive campaign in 2020, and Cleveland was still successful.

    Yet, manager Terry Francona's club is a big betting underdog.

    This team has plenty of arm talent, headlined by Shane Bieber. The outfield gets much-needed production with Eddie Rosario. Bobby Bradley has had a tremendous spring and could be a breakout bat. Of course, Jose Ramirez is a stud. 

    It goes without saying Cleveland will have to manufacture more runs. But it has had sustained success in the AL Central and has as deep a pitching staff as any team in baseball. It's criminal Cleveland is that big of an underdog.


    Foolish: Chicago White Sox (-130)

    I believe the White Sox hype. I wrote about it. But these odds are not ideal considering Cleveland should still contend, as well as the fact the Minnesota Twins have won consecutive AL Central crowns and still have a dangerous lineup and balanced team.

    Chicago also has less experience at the back end of the rotation, though Dylan Cease looks good and Michael Kopech should factor into the mix. The bullpen is loaded, however.

    Ultimately, this is more about Chicago's odds and limited payout. Both Cleveland and Minnesota will push the White Sox, making the South Siders a bit of risky play.


    Bold: Kansas City Royals (+4000) 

    The Kansas City Royals made consequential additions this offseason by signing Carlos Santana and trading for Andrew Benintendi. Left-hander Mike Minor provides a veteran feel in a rotation anchored by youngsters Brady Singer and Brad Keller.

    Michael A. Taylor has quietly had a monster spring. Oh, and top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. has been so good he could eventually play a role. Are the Royals going to

    It is extremely unlikely Kansas City can outlast the three teams at the top. But it has lots of talent and a young and improving pitching staff. Keep a close eye on the Royals this season.


    Other Teams: Minnesota Twins (+150), Detroit Tigers (+6000)

American League West

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Smart: Oakland Athletics (+145)

    The Oakland Athletics maneuvered brilliantly this winter. 

    Trevor Rosenthal is not Liam Hendriks, but he has dominant closer stuff. Mitch Moreland is a vital lefty power bat and should be a big upgrade over Khris Davis at the designated hitter spot. Elvis Andrus might actually be an improvement over Marcus Semien, at least offensively. 

    Oakland still has plenty of bullpen depth. The pressure will be on Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk to pitch well and hold down two spots in the rotation. That said, the A's have overcome mediocre starting groups before. Guys like Frankie Montas could also provide a boost by getting back to old form.  


    Foolish: Los Angeles Angels (+375)

    Some might suggest the Los Angeles Angels should be a trendy pick in the AL West. But at +375, the Halos are not exactly massive underdogs relative to the A's (+145) and Houston Astros (+125).

    General manager Perry Minasian did well to rebuild the bullpen by adding Raisel Iglesias at the back end in addition to signing vets like Junior Guerra and Alex Claudio.

    But the rotation just isn't good enough. Shohei Ohtani has displayed brilliant stuff this spring, but he will need to prove he can stay healthy and make it a true six-man rotation. Both Jose Quintana and Alex Cobb are more mid- to back-end starters.


    Bold: Seattle Mariners (+2600)

    Did you know Seattle’s starters ranked ninth in fWAR in 2020? What about the fact the Mariners defense ranked 10th in defensive runs saved and has multiple Gold Glovers?

    Marco Gonzales is a steady horse at the top of the rotation, and youngster Justus Sheffield had an excellent debut. Yusei Kikuchi has great peripherals and is having a strong spring. Plus, James Paxton is back!

    The defense, as previously mentioned, is strong. But the bats are what will likely hold Seattle back. The M's ranked 14th in OPS in the AL in 2020. Jarred Kelenic's eventual arrival should help matters, as should the return of Mitch Haniger. Still, there just isn't enough offense.


    Other Teams: Houston Astros (+125), Texas Rangers (+6000)

National League East

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Smart: Washington Nationals (+600)

    The National League East could be loaded this season. All eyes are on the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, but the Nats have terrific betting odds.

    This is a rotation that, when healthy, still has as good a top three as any in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.

    Juan Soto is a perennial MVP candidate to anchor the lineup. Trea Turner kick-starts the offense at the top of the order. The X-factors will be Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell, two guys with the potential to be major run producers. Bell is having a huge spring.

    Do not discount the Brad Hand signing, either. Washington ranked 23rd in bullpen fWAR in 2020, but it now has one of the top closers in the game.


    Foolish: Miami Marlins (+2500)

    The Miami Marlins' playoff run was a nice story. But their Pythagorean win-loss record (26-34) translates to about a 70-win pace over the course of a full season.

    Miami has a terrific group of young arms, including Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez. General manager Kim Ng added good bullpen arms such as Dylan Floro and Anthony Bass. But the offense ranked just 11th in runs scored and OPS in the NL in 2020 and did not add much outside of Adam Duvall. The Marlins will not create enough runs.

    This team is still building.


    Bold: Philadelphia Phillies (+875)

    The Phillies scored the fourth-most runs in the NL last season. They have a strong top three in the rotation with Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin. Philly also stocked up on bullpen depth, addressing the team's biggest area of concern.

    Frankly, one of the biggest reasons the Phillies could win the division is president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski's unabashed willingness to sell assets to get the player he desires. Maybe Philly will somehow turn the tide in the division with a major midseason acquisition.


    Other Teams: Atlanta Braves (+120), New York Mets (+140)

National League Central

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Smart: Milwaukee Brewers (+300)

    Picking a smart bet in the NL Central might as well be shooting fish in a barrel, save for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It could be anyone's division. But the Brewers might have the most favorable odds. 

    Milwaukee has a strong 1-2 in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, and the Brew Crew did well to re-sign Brett Anderson. Both Adrian Houser and Josh Lindblom have interesting stuff, and Freddy Peralta is an interesting flex arm.

    The Brewers could very well have the best bullpen in the division with Devin Williams and Josh Hader at the back end, especially if Drew Rasmussen and Justin Topa are major contributors. Prospect Aaron Ashby could be in the mix.

    Craig Counsell's club is also tremendously improved defensively. The Brewers get an enormous upgrade with Kolten Wong at second and Keston Hiura sliding to first. Jackie Bradley Jr.'s glove work needs little explanation. 

    Milwaukee will need to score more consistently. But a resurgent Christian Yelich should help matters quite a bit.


    Foolish: Pittsburgh Pirates (+6500)

    The Pirates were in sell mode all offseason and are in a full-blown rebuild. They might well be the worst team in baseball once again in 2021.


    Bold: Chicago Cubs (+425)

    Yes, the Cubs are without Yu Darvish. There are plenty of question marks in the pitching staff.

    Still, Chicago probably has the most talented group of position players in the division. The North Siders should score plenty of runs if the likes of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez all return to All-Star form, especially after Ian Happ's breakout 2020.

    Run prevention could loom large, as well. The Cubs ranked fifth in defensive runs saved and third in FanGraphs' total defense metric in 2020.


    Other Teams: St. Louis Cardinals (+105), Cincinnati Reds (+330)

National League West

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Smart: San Diego Padres (+200) 

    The Friars could very well be one of the best teams in baseball, and they are still fairly clear underdogs in the NL West. Could be worth it to throw a few bucks their way.

    Even if Dinelson Lamet is not ready to start the season, San Diego still has a tremendous rotation with Yu Darvish and Blake Snell at the top. Chris Paddack could bounce back, and San Diego has young arms like MacKenzie Gore, Adrian Morejon and Ryan Weathers all ready to make their marks. 

    At the plate, the Padres ranked third in the NL in runs and fourth in OPS in 2020. San Diego also added versatility by signing Ha-Seong Kim and bringing back Jurickson Profar. 

    The Padres are more balanced than they were last year. They are also young and almost certainly hungry to topple the Los Angeles Dodgers after L.A.'s long reign atop the NL West.


    Foolish: Colorado Rockies (+5000)

    I was going to choose the Dodgers because they are pretty massive favorites (-250) despite the Padres posing a stiff challenge. But we'll avoid any controversy there and instead settle for the team that has basically been the butt of every joke this offseason.

    It might be just a matter of time before the Rockies embark on a sell-off. Trevor Story and German Marquez could both head out of town as Colorado tries to replenish a farm system Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter ranked 29th in baseball.


    Bold: San Francisco Giants (+4000)

    The Giants quietly ranked fifth in the NL in both runs and OPS last season. They have a super deep position group that gives manager Gabe Kapler options with the lineup card.

    San Francisco's rotation should be interesting, as well. Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood join the mix. Johnny Cueto and Kevin Gausman both have the opportunity to pitch their way into being top trade chips. Then again, maybe strong performances will keep the Giants in the playoff hunt.


    Other Teams: Los Angeles Dodgers (-250), Arizona Diamondbacks (+5000)


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference or FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All betting odds obtained via MLB" target="_blank">DraftKings.


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