03/27/2007 11:00PM

MLB champ Cardinals unlikely to repeat


LAS VEGAS - Ready of not, baseball season is here. I know this because the flowers are blooming, my e-mail inbox is flooded with fantasy baseball league invitations, and my softball coach is trying to get the ol' team back together again.

Men's basketball will be getting the bulk of the media attention and the betting action this weekend with Saturday's NCAA tournament semifinals and the championship game on Monday night. But baseball will get plenty of discussion in between, as the regular season starts Sunday with the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals playing the New York Mets, and 26 teams opening their seasons on Monday and the rest on Tuesday.

That will even be more true here in Las Vegas as Major League Baseball comes to town for the 17th straight year with Big League Weekend. The Cubs and the Mariners will play at 7:15 p.m. Friday at Cashman Field and again on Saturday at 1:05 p.m. The Cubs and Mariners are playing in Vegas for the third straight year, with the Cubs making their sixth overall appearance and the Mariners their 10th, going all the way back to 1983 when they played the Padres in the first MLB exhibition at Cashman Field. Both teams have loyal followings that help the events sell out, and the stands will be packed for both games this weekend, though I suspect a number of people will leave Saturday's game early to watch the Ohio St.-Georgetown game tip off at 3:05 p.m. local time.

So, who is the team to beat in baseball this year? That's a good question. The Cubs and Mariners don't make the short list. The Cubs added new manager Lou Piniella and Alfonso Soriano to the lineup, along with a healthy Derrek Lee, but they still have ailing star pitchers in Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The Mariners have Ichiro Suzuki, but not much else, and there are reports of him being on the trading block.

When a new sports season starts, it's natural to look at the defending champion. However, since the turn of the century, after the Yankees won back-to-back-to-back World Series from 1998 to 2000, six different teams have won the championship in the ensuing six years, none of them being the Yankees.

Besides, the Cardinals were a surprise champion last year. After going only 83-78 during the regular season, they were available at 12-1 odds when the playoff field was set with eight teams, and they were solid 2-1 underdogs vs. the Tigers in the World Series. And the Cardinals don't look so hot this year, as pitchers Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan left as free agents and Mark Mulder is sidelined for the first half of the season.

The oddsmakers at Las Vegas Sports Consultants certainly aren't fooled by the fact the Cards are the defending champs, as LVSC makes them only the third choice to win the NL pennant, at 9-2, behind the Mets and Dodgers.

The Mets and Yankees are the two favorites to win it all, but I'm not looking to tie up my money for the next seven months at odds of less than 10-1. Instead, here's a look at each division and who might succeed and fail:

AL East: The Yankees and Red Sox are often overpriced in their games, so I'm usually looking to bet against them or pass. Bettors fared well going against the Yankees last year, especially vs. Randy Johnson. Even with the Big Unit gone, there should be ample opportunities to take better than 2-1 in games against the Evil Empire. The Blue Jays should also offer betting value against the top-tier teams.

AL Central: This is among the toughest division in which to handicap games. The Tigers and White Sox are among the best in baseball, and the Twins and Indians are capable of challenging them for the division crown. But the team I'll probably be looking to bet more than any of them is the Royals, who lost a lot of close games last year and should show marked improvement this year at juicy prices because, well, they're the Royals. I'll be more likely to go against the top four teams when they're laying big prices on the road.

AL West: As hinted at above, the Mariners probably won't be on my betting tickets much this season. The Angels look like the class of the division and they are the odds-on favorite, but I think the A's can challenge them. After all, they are the defending division champs, and despite the loss of pitcher Barry Zito, general manager Billy Beane is the best at plugging holes and keeping his team competitive.

NL East: The Mets are the heavy favorite, and they'll be big favorites in most games they play, and I feel they'll have a great season. I'll need a big price and a solid pitcher on the opposing team to consider fading them. The Braves saw their run of 14 straight division titles end last year, but that could mean good things for bettors this year. The prices on the Braves, who still have some talent and a great regular-season manager in Bobby Cox, should make them attractive.

NL Central: This is easily the weakest division in baseball. When other teams drop in class to face these teams, I'll likely be on those other teams. The only team I'll probably back in this division with any regularity is the Astros, who might fly under the radar until Roger Clemens decides whether to play this year.

NL West: All eyes are on Barry Bonds, but count me among those who will be cheering against him this year. And I could care less about Hank Aaron's home run record; I'm talking about betting against the Giants, especially when he's in the lineup (the betting value disappears when he takes his days off and the lines get adjusted). The Giants don't have much offense behind Bonds when teams walk him. The Rockies could be a surprise, and will fetch nice prices until oddsmakers catch on.