04/02/2004 12:00AM

Baseball's big picture, team by team


LAS VEGAS - When playing roulette, you wouldn't (or at least you shouldn't) bet on red just because it's come up five times in a row. This should also be read to mean that you shouldn't bet on black in that case either.

Yet, all the time we see sports bettors make bets on teams just because they're on a winning streak, or bet a team on a team on a losing streak just because "they're due."

It's important when evaluating teams to look at the big picture and not be influenced by recent results. As part of my personal handicapping, I try to project what the general public thinks about a team and how they will likely perform against the spread. It especially helps when I later find a team that I think will exceed expectations against a team I feel is overrated.

As a season progresses, you obviously have to re-evaluate everyone and see who is performing above or below expectations and if that is likely to continue (those who figure this out before other bettors and the oddsmakers can really make a killing).

So, you have to start somewhere, and these are my notes on the baseball season.

NL East

Marlins: The time to bet the Marlins was last year before everyone else figured out how good they were. This year, because the public will still be backing them, they'll be an underlay every day, even when they're an underdog. I'm looking to bet against them any time I have a quality opposing pitcher.

Phillies: This is the year a lot of people think the Phillies will dethrone the Braves in the NL East. I like their pitching better than their hitting (too many strikeouts) and see the Phils as a good under bet.

Braves: With the public perception that the rest of the league, and especially the division, has caught up with the Braves, there should be plenty of times we see betting value on them.

Mets: It would take a miracle for the Mets to win the division this year, but they could actually be the best money-making team for bettors because they will often be a live underdog.

Expos: The starting pitching should be strong, while the offense is pretty weak. That combination will mean the oddsmakers probably won't be able to set the totals low enough to keep the Expos from being a very profitable under team.

NL Central

Cubs: Forget any betting value on the Cubs with their stellar pitching staff. It'll be tough to even get plus-money on them on the road. The under would be the way to look until the offense shows it will pull its weight.

Astros: Everyone is talking about the Astros' pitching, but I'm not sure it will stand up. Assuming the offense continued to perform, they could be a good over bet, especially if the depleted bullpen is overextended.

Cardinals: Everyone is keying on the Cubs and Astros, but the Cardinals could very easily steal the division. Their offense is probably the best of the three teams, and the pitching isn't too far behind. Back them as an underdog or a small favorite.

Reds: Weak pitching plus potent offense equals a solid over bet, especially at home.

Pirates: Exact opposite of Reds as the Pirates have a young pitching staff that should surprise, but a weak offense. Look to the under, especially with Rick Reed, Kris Benson, Kip Wells, or Josh Fogg on the mound.

Brewers: Bad pitching and bad hitting equals no play, unless you're willing to lay a big price. The only playable pitcher would be Ben Sheets, and only at 2-1 or higher.

NL West

Giants: The Giants are Barry Bonds, and with him getting more and more questions about the steroids issue and the frustration of being walked multiple times each game, I could see this team unraveling. I'll be playing against them a lot when I've got a quality pitcher.

Diamondbacks: It's time to bet against Randy Johnson. He's 40 years old and no longer has Curt Schilling as a teammate. The offense could be among the league's best, and with the question marks on the pitching staff, this is an over team.

Dodgers: This is a definite under team with a strong starting staff and the nearly unhittable Eric Gagne closing out games, plus the fact the offense is expected to be just productive enough to win games. A definite live road dog.

Rockies: The Rockies again have the look of an over team (unless they turn up that humidor) with a potent offense and lackluster pitching. Jason Jennings and Scott Elarton are playable as dogs.

Padres: I'll go out on a limb here and predict the Padres, bolstered by their new stadium and revamped roster, will start the season great. Then, they will come down to earth. I will bet accordingly, riding them early and the going against them when it looks like the public is on the bandwagon.

AL East

Yankees: The Yankees showed the risk of betting on them when they lost as a 2-5 favorite over the Devil Rays on Tuesday in Tokyo. They can win 100 games this year and still be a losing proposition. I think the over is the better way to go.

Red Sox: Likewise, the Red Sox will also be a heavy favorite in most games and unbettable, but because of their strong pitching I would lean on the under.

Orioles: The O's are definitely on the improve, but are still overmatched in this division. Their revamped lineup and mediocre pitching scream over, but I would still look at them as a live dog, especially at home against elite teams.

Blue Jays: The Jays also look like a solid play as a home dog and should also cash their share of overs.

Devil Rays: The only thing better than beating the Yankees in the season opener would have been a sweep - because then maybe the public would have thought this team could contend. It can't, but still no value in laying big lumber against the Rays.

AL Central

White Sox: Will the talented Sox finally take the Central division, or continue to get bypassed by the Twins or even the Royals? Either way, they should cash plenty of over tickets, especially when Esteban Loaiza and Mark Buehrle are not on the mound. Those two should always be played as underdogs.

Twins: Free agency has gutted this team, so I'll often be betting against them. The under should also be a money-maker, though I'd avoid that bet at home in the dome.

Royals: Good luck if you're betting on this team. They'll occasionally score some runs, so the better bet might be the over when facing a mediocre pitcher.

Tigers: Can Ivan Rodriguez lead a second former dormat to the World Series? Don't count on it. It's also difficult to bet against the Tigers because of the high price the oddsmakers always make you pay.

Indians: The Indians could actually be worse than the Tigers, so they should offer better betting value - to go against them.

AL West

Athletics: Oakland lost another offensive star when Miguel Tejada signed with Baltimore, but the A's still have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. They have to get a look with the under - especially when Tim Hudson, Barry Zito or Mark Mulder take the mound. But with a potential lack of run support, I'd go against them at home.

Mariners: The Mariners, while never making it to the World Series, have had a great run despite losing many of their top stars along the way, just like the A's. But the Mariners are a club with aging stars and it's probably the time to bet against them whenever you can get plus-money.

Angels: The Angels had a great offseason and are expected to be a contender, and this is one time I think the public will be right. That makes it difficult to bet on them at inflated prices, so the under should get a look when they are facing a quality pitcher.

Rangers: The Rangers finally unloaded the contract of Alex Rodriguez that was blamed for the fact they couldn't sign enough quality pitchers - so where is the quality pitching? Still not in Texas. The Rangers have to be considered a solid over play with plenty of solid bats still in the lineup, plus the addition of Alfonso Soriano, Brian Jordan, and Brad Fullmer.

Postseason picks

Baseball betting, even more than any other sport, requires a constant flow of money with games being played every day. So, it's tougher to justify tying up money until October in future bets (especially since that can cut into your bankroll for football season), and besides it usually pays more to wait for your team to make it to the postseason and just parlay your winnings from series to series.

But for the record, I'll tab the Cardinals at 10-1 as my value play in the National League. The Angels are 4-1 in the American League, though again you'll see a better return on a series-by-series parlay because they'll probably have to go through the Yankees or Red Sox.