03/29/2006 1:00AM

Time to start thinking diamonds


As the calendar turns to April, we not only have the Final Four of college basketball but the start of the baseball season.

Even though the economics of baseball seems to create competitive imbalance, anything can happen, as evidenced by the big-spending Yankees having come up empty five years in a row and the Diamond-backs, Angels, Marlins, Red Sox, and White Sox having won the last five World Series. Heck, even in the World Classic, the United States couldn't make the semifinals, and Japan won the event despite being 20-1 with oddsmakers here before the tournament.

Local baseball fans get a taste of major-league product with Big League Weekend at Cashman Field. It actually was to start Thursday with the Dodgers and Mariners playing at 7:05 p.m., but the hot tickets in town were the Friday (7:05 p.m.) and Saturday games (12:05 p.m.), which have been sold out for a month.

Those who are concerned with betting have been shopping for future-book bets and over/under season win totals, and comparing proposition wagers, such as who will hit the most homers. Alex Rodriguez is a solid favorite to be the home run king, with his odds ranging from 7-2 to 9-2 at the Las Vegas Hilton, Palms, Caesars Palace, and Plaza. There are plenty of season propositions if you want to tie your money up until October.

For those focusing on the day-to-day battle with the bookies, the Stratosphere and its sister properties at Arizona Charlie's East and West have come up with the best value in town on baseball. While the industry standard is to offer a 10-cent line (the difference in the price between the favorite and the underdog; for example -115 on the favorite and +105 on the underdog), many books, especially on the Strip, have gone to 15- and 20-cent lines. But Stratosphere race and sports book director Robert Jaynes will be dealing 8-cent lines on side bets. That might not seem like much, but over the course of the baseball season, the money saved on losing bets can really add up. Also, while most every other book uses a 20-cent line on totals and run lines, the Strat and Arizona Charlie's books will use 15-cent lines.

"We wanted to get people in here this baseball season, and the combination of these deals should make it worthwhile for people to check us out," Jaynes said.

As for me, I prepare for the season by focusing on which teams I think will overachieve and underachieve based on public perception and the odds that will be offered once the season starts. Last year, I started out great backing the Nationals, Orioles, and Angels, but didn't do so well early in the season with the Reds and Giants. Here are my notes on the teams to play on and against in each division.

American League East

Play on: The Blue Jays could be poised to make a run at the Yankees and Red Sox and should be considered live underdogs against those teams. Oddsmakers will probably make you pay the price when they're at home, but the Jays should be profitable as road underdogs or short faves.

Play against: The Yankees were a great bet-against team early last year, and there will certainly be plenty of times to take a shot against them this season as long as you have a decent opposing pitcher who can keep you in the game.

American League Central

Play on: The Indians nearly made the playoffs last year, but because they are still considered second-class citizens, they should still offer betting value.

Play against: The White Sox, as defending champions, will fall into the same category as the Yankees and Red Sox - they'll be overpriced often enough that unless they hit at a .667 clip, it should be profitable to go against them with any kind of decent team.

American League West

Play on: The Rangers, who have long had a strong lineup and weak pitching, might actually have the arms to battle the Angels and A's for the division title. But even if they fall short in that quest, I'm confident they'll make more money for bettors this season than those other two teams.

Play against: The Angels, conversely, might run away with the division, but will be worth taking a stand against, especially when they're on the road.

National League East

Play on: The Phillies were a popular preseason dark-horse pick last year before failing to break from the gate. They are under the radar this year, especially with the Mets being the team du jour, and they should be attractively priced on most days.

Play against: I would normally put the Mets in this spot, but they might actually be as good as the hype. The Marlins and Nationals might be as bad as advertised, so it will be hard to bet against them without paying a premium. So, I'll go with the Braves to underachieve.

National League Central

Play on: The Pirates are young and talented, and while they might not thrill Pittsburgh fans as much as the Steelers, they should often be live underdogs, especially early in the season before the rest of the public catches on.

Play against: The Cubs, always a team the public loves to back, is in trouble with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior on the DL. As a result, their lines won't be as inflated, but they should still be a good team to fade.

National League West

Play on: The Rockies have the bats to score runs even away from Coors Field, and should be considered a live underdog when Jason Jennings, Jeff Francis, or Aaron Cook is on the mound.

Play against: The Padres won the division last year, but barely finished above .500. Taking the plus-money against them should show a tidy profit even if they have a good year.