02/18/2004 1:00AM

A-Rod trade didn't move odds


Baseball's "Hot Stove League" got its name from a bygone era when fans would gather around the hot stoves in general stores and barber shops and discuss the upcoming season and trade rumors.

The phrase has continued to this day - even for those of us who have never seen a hot stove except in old movies - and has been updated to include discussion around water coolers and on the Internet.

The offseason talk was hot and heavy again this winter with free-agent signings (an alien concept to anyone who ever gathered around a hot stove) and proposed trades. But things didn't reach a boiling point until this past month, as the Red Sox tried to land Alex Rodriguez, only to have the deal fall through, and then the Yankees swoop in this past week to close the deal just before teams were about to report for spring training.

Dan O'Brien is an oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants and is in charge of the baseball future-book odds that are sent out to Nevada's sports books. As such, he has been keeping a close eye on everything leading up to the upcoming season.

"The A-Rod signing itself doesn't have the impact that a lot of people might think," O'Brien said. "The Yankees were going to be the favorite to begin with."

Last October, even before losing the World Series to the Marlins, the Yankees were installed as the 3-1 favorites to win the 2004 World Series.

"We knew they were going to lose [Roger] Clemens and probably [Andy] Pettitte, so 3-1 to win the Series is about as high as you're going to find the Yankees," O'Brien said. "As the offseason progressed and the Red Sox signed Curt Schilling and the A-Rod rumors picked up, the Red Sox were almost co-favorites."

Last month, LVSC had the Yankees at 12-5 (the equivalent of 2.4-1) with the Red Sox at 5-2. With the Yankees landing Rodriguez, they were lowered this week to 2-1, with the Red Sox still at 5-2.

O'Brien said he doesn't expect the Yankees' odds to go any lower until the regular season gets under way and we get to see how the team plays.

"Any lowering now would be because of public perception," he said, "but even then there's no guarantee that the best team will win it all. Anything can happen, as Florida proved with a couple of tough pitchers."

After the Yankees and Red Sox, the teams with the lowest World Series future-book odds this week were the Cubs and Astros at 7-1. Both teams were listed as 7-2 co-favorites to win the National League pennant. O'Brien, however, said that if the Cubs signed Greg Maddux (which they announced Wednesday morning) he would lower them to 3-1 to win the NL and 6-1 to win the World Series.

Baseball historians certainly see the irony in the fact that the Red Sox and Cubs have such low odds.

"It's funny that two of the three favorites to win it all haven't won it in forever," O'Brien said of the Cubs' drought since 1908 and the Red Sox curse dating back to 1918. "But when you're setting odds, you have to concentrate on what they're putting on the field this year and not what history dictates."

The Angels and Phillies are next in the World Series odds at 8-1, followed by the A's, Giants, Braves, and Mariners all at 10-1.

Other ways to bet baseball season

Baseball futures are popular, but a lot of times you don't know if you have a live ticket until the pennant races wind down in September and into the postseason in October. But there are other bets that are easier to follow from opening day.

One of the most popular is the over/under season win totals. In fact, they've been so popular in past years that many sports books don't offer them anymore, because the sharp bettors have cleaned up.

But the Imperial Palace posted its odds this past Sunday. Their oddsmakers knew the Yankees were closing the deal with A-Rod, so they shaded the Yankees' win total from 96 1/2 to 97 1/2. The bettors bet the over anyway, and as of noon Wednesday the number was up to 99.

The Red Sox have the next-highest total at 96 (down from their opening number of 96 1/2). The Cubs were raised from 91 1/2 to 92 1/2 after the signing of Maddux. The Phillies were also at 92 1/2, with the Astros and Angels at 90 1/2.

We'll take a closer look at some individual player props in the coming weeks.

Despite record, Lakers still on top

Coming out of the All-Star break, the Lakers are still the 6-5 favorite to win the NBA title. That's despite the fact that they had only the fifth-best record in the Western Conference at the break.

"With their starting lineup completely intact, they're the best team regardless of their record," said Ken White, chief executive of LVSC, "and it looks like everyone will be healthy down the stretch."

The West is still the best, with the Kings and Spurs at 3-1 and the Timberwolves at 8-1 along with the Nets, who are given the best chance of the teams from the East. The Mavericks have slipped to 10-1 along with the Pacers, who are no better than seventh choice despite having the second-best record in the NBA - 39-15 after Tuesday night's loss to the Knicks.

March Madness right around corner

Duke was upset 78-74 by North Carolina St. on Sunday and lost its spot atop the polls, but that hasn't deterred oddsmakers from making the Blue Devils the 3-1 favorite to the win the NCAA men's basketball title.

"Losing at N.C. State is nothing to be ashamed of," White said. "Duke is still the best overall team with the best chance to win it all.

"Duke is better than Stanford or St. Joe's," he said, naming the only two undefeated teams left in Division I. "I would make Duke minus-6 versus either of them on a neutral court."

Stanford is the co-second choice in LVSC's odds at 4-1 along with Connecticut, which lost to Notre Dame and Pittsburgh last week and has seen its stock drop. St. Joe's is10-1.

Other top teams include Louisville (5-1), Texas (7-1), Arizona (8-1), and Mississippi St. (8-1).