03/31/2005 12:00AM

Which teams to bet, avoid in baseball


This baseball season is shaping up to be like none other before it.

The sport is embroiled in a scandal that has purists calling for asterisks on the records of the so-called steroids era and all eyes will be on the league's substance-abuse plan, as well as on the players that have been suspected of juicing up. Great performances will be met with skepticism, and poor performances will be seen as proof that those players were only succeeding by breaking the rules.

It's a double-edged sword for commissioner Bud Selig. More people are talking about baseball, though not always in a positive light. The old saying is that there's no such thing as bad publicity, and that will be put to the test when attendance figures are analyzed after the season is under way. Are fans turned off by the scandal, or will they continue to come out in droves?

Here's a look at each division with some suggestions on which teams to play against and which teams might present betting value this season:

American League East

Yankees and Red Sox. Red Sox and Yankees. That's all the media seems to talk about when the top contenders are talked about for the upcoming season. The oddsmakers agree. Las Vegas Sports Consultants has the Yankees as the 2-1 favorite to win the World Series with the Red Sox at 4-1 and then a big dropoff to the Cubs and Angels at 8-1, the Cardinals at 9-1, and the Braves and Mets at 10-1.

The season over/under odds tell the same story as the Yankees' number is set at 101 1/2, the Red Sox are projected 4 1/2 games back at 97, and then the dropoff is another 4 1/2 games down to the Cardinals at 92 1/2, the Angels are 91 1/2, the Braves at 89 1/2, and the Cubs at 88 (an adjustment from their opening number of 90).

Play against: All that being said, the Yankees and Red Sox have to be categorized as bet-against teams because they will be overpriced day in and day out, especially when the Yankees' Randy Johnson and the Red Sox's Curt Schilling are on the mound. Just be careful when jumping in front of the train. The danger about going against either is that even if you get lucky enough and your team knocks them around, their lineups can more than make up for subpar pitching performances.

Play: The Orioles added Sammy Sosa in the offseason and should score a lot of runs. They should be an overlay early in the season. Their weakness is the starting rotation, so an Orioles/over parlay could be profitable.

American League Central

Play: The Tigers improved from just 43 wins in 2003 to 72 wins last year. Their over/under is at 78 this season, which is nearly .500. There should be plenty of opportunities to bet them at plus-money and show a profit on the season. The key will be if former White Sox slugger Magglio Ordonez adapts to his new team and if former Angel Troy Percival will have enough opportunities to close out games.

Play against: The Twins used to be a great underdog play, but now everyone knows how solid the team is and the value has swung to the other side. But I still wouldn't go against ace Johan Santana.

American League West

Play: The Angels certainly look like the best in the West, but a far better bet - because they will have better odds on a daily basis - could be the Mariners. Their over/under win total is just 76, but I think they will far exceed that. The addition of third baseman Adrian Beltre, last year's home run champ with 48, should be huge. Seattle's pitching isn't stellar, but if it was, the Mariners would be favored a lot more and wouldn't be as good of a betting opportunity. A fast start could obviously dry up the betting spree.

Play against: The A's have been a contender for a long time, but the trading away of Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson could spell the end of that. If oddsmakers don't adjust right away, I will be playing against them often.

National League East

Play: The Mets would have been my choice but the more they did during the off-season - particularly nabbing the two top free agents, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran - the clearer it became that they weren't going to sneak up on anybody. Instead, I will look to play the Washington Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, more than one might expect. And it's not just because they should be motivated to play well in their new city. The lineup boasts Vinny Castilla, Jose Guillen, and Jose Vidro, and the pitching is improved with Esteban Loaiza joining Livan Hernandez.

Play against: The Phillies, while talented, rarely seem to live up to their potential and that should be the case again this year, especially in a tough division vs. the likes of the Braves, Mets, and Marlins.

National League Central

Play: The Reds are an interesting team. They have a lot of new faces and the key will be if they can jell as a team. But the talent is there on both offense (Ken Griffey Jr. if he stays healthy, slugger Adam Dunn, Sean Casey) and on the pitching staff (Paul Wilson, Ramon Ortiz, Eric Milton, and closer Danny Graves).

Play against: The Astros came on like gangbusters last year and will be a favorite in a lot of games early on, but this team could be hitting a wall with injuries and age starting to add up. Their veterans could be gearing up to make, as the saying goes, "one last run," but I'm betting against it.

National League West

Play: The Giants will be a far different team without Barry Bonds in the lineup, as evidenced by their over/under season win total plummeting from 88 to 82 1/2. That should provide betting value, however, as the remaining starters can pick up the slack and should be better than a .500 team that those odds suggest.Play against: The Dodgers won the division last year, but the consensus is that they did it with mirrors and history shouldn't be expected to repeat itself, especially after losing Beltre, Steve Finley, and Alex Cora. Solid pitching should shut down their offense and lead to some solid plays.