03/02/2005 1:00AM

Steroids, schmeroids. Yanks team to beat.


Baseball talk this offseason has been different from years past. While the traditional hot-stove discussions used to revolve around trades and free-agent signings, this winter's discussions tend to be more about steroids.

But spring training is under way and exhibition games started this week, and baseball handicappers are back to make their bets. One common question the past month or so has been whether the steroid scandal will chase fans away from the game.

"All of this steroid talk only hurts baseball in the historical sense," Tony Sinisi, senior oddsmaker for the Las Vegas Sports Consultants, said. "The beauty of baseball is that you could compare records from the modern era to the 1930's and 1940's and they were pretty even, so the way the home run records have been skewed, a lot of that is lost, and, to me, that injured baseball.

"But on a year-to-year basis, the baseball fan is going to be a baseball fan. That will be quickly forgotten, even if last year is viewed as a steroids year and this year is not."

So it might be a different era, but some things remain the same: LVSC has the Yankees a 2-1 favorite to win the World Series. Their rivals, the defending champion Red Sox (wow, never thought I'd be writing that), are the second choice at 4-1, and Sinisi said those are in the general ballpark of what he has seen around town.

"Last year, the Yankees and Red Sox were really, really even," Sinisi said, "and this year the Yankees appear deeper pitching-wise with the addition of Randy Johnson."

LVSC has the Cardinals as the 6-1 third choice, followed by the Cubs and Angels at 8-1 and the Braves and Mets at 12-1.

"The Braves are an interesting team and have seen a lot of action around town as I've seen them as low as 8-1," Sinisi said. "Pitching is obviously very important in baseball, and the Braves have it again with the addition of Tim Hudson [from Oakland] and John Smoltz moving back to the starting rotation."

On the other end of the spectrum, the relocated Washington Nationals are the co-longest price on the board at 500-1 with the Royals. Sinisi said there hasn't been much movement in future-book prices.

"There's not a great advantage to bet now with circumstances that could affect your bet like injuries during spring training or more player movement, but bettors will start taking a closer look as we move through the month," Sinisi said.

LVSC is expected to send out major league over/under win totals in the next week or so to help spark more action, Sinisi added.

NFL futures pretty stagnant, too

Randy Moss to the Raiders. Drew Bledsoe to the Cowboys. Those moves and others have been big news in some locales, with the NFL's free-agent signing period beginning this week, but they've barely registered in future-book betting here in Vegas.

The Patriots - the epitome of team play - are still the favorites to win next year's Super Bowl at around 4-1 at most books, with the Eagles and Colts duking it out for the role of second choice at around 5-1.

Those teams, as well as the rest of the teams in the league, are pretty much where they were when the odds first went up a month ago. The aforementioned Raiders and Cowboys are still in the 40-1 to 50-1 range.

As far as who I like, the Broncos and Jaguars, two teams that actually play defense and should continue to improve on offense, can still be found in the neighborhood of 30-1. I like that neighborhood.

Home dogs barking in AFL

In this space a week ago Wednesday, I pointed out that it appeared that home underdogs in the Arena Football League were being undervalued by oddsmakers, or at least it seemed that way after three home dogs pulled outright upsets.

The trend continued last weekend as home dogs went 2-0 against the spread, with Grand Rapids pulling a 66-57 outright upset of Columbus on Sunday as a 6-point dog. Overall, underdogs went 5-2-1 against the spread last weekend, though it should be pointed out that the push was a loss for the majority of bettors in the New Orleans-Tampa Bay game on Feb. 25 as the line opened at New Orleans -4 1/2 and was bet to -6, so only the very latest bettors got the push.

Looking at this weekend's schedule, there are no home dogs in any of the AFL's eight games, though Philadelphia is pick-em at home vs. New York on Sunday and is a good pick at that spread, and would be better if New York is bet to favoritism.

The AFL's weekend slate begins Friday night here with the Las Vegas Gladiators hosting the Austin Wranglers at 7 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Gladiators, with a 3-2 record and surprisingly tied atop the tough Western Division, are 7-point favorites despite playing their third straight game without starting quarterback Clint Dolezel. The Wranglers are tied for a league-worst record of 1-4.

Madness right around the corner

Taking one last look at the NCAA men's basketball futures before they get adjusted after Selection Sunday on March 13, LVSC has undefeated and No. 1-ranked Illinois as only a 2-1 co-favorite along with North Carolina.

"They're both excellent teams, but as Rick Majerus said the other day, 'The ACC is a man's league,' " Sinisi said. "Illinois is strong, but they're coming out of a weaker conference and they have to show me a little more."

Wake Forest, another ACC member, is the third choice at 9-2, followed by Big 12 rivals Kansas and Oklahoma St. both at 6-1, and perennial SEC power Kentucky at 10-1 along with Duke, giving the ACC three teams in the top seven spots on LVSC's future board.