MLB Starts Thursday

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

LET'S REVIEW 2010 RUN DIFFERENTIALS TO PREPARE FOR START OF 2011 SEASON

Traditionally, Major League Baseball gets started right as March Madness is ending. In recent seasons, the Sunday Night opener on ESPN came on the night between the Final Four and the championship game. Then, many Monday afternoon openers finished as a nice appetizer for the big TV basketball game.

This year, baseball is starting way too early!!

Well, not really. But, it's starting earlier than many people realize. After complaints that the season was going on too long...with the playoffs then taking forever...baseball has moved things up by half a week to qualm those concerns. As a result...first pitch of the 2011 season is set simultaneously for Washington DC in the National League (Braves at Nationals Thursday at 1:05 ET), and New York City (Tigers at Yankees).

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME BASEBALL?!

Well, you'd better GET ready because early season baseball is very easy to beat. We'll talk more about that in the coming days as time permits. The key to remember is that you want to place bets based on what's happening NOW (new rosters, recent form in Spring Training, April weather) rather than based on what happened back in 2010. Oddsmakers and early bettors are overly influenced by what they remember from last season. Winners will be determined by what's happening in 2011!

To help you with the transition from last year to this year, we're going to review the final run differentials from 2010 (a better team indicator than won-lost record). In the process, we'll throw in some comments about projected changes for 2011. When time and space permit next week, we'll monitor early season developments on the fly to keep you ahead of the curve.

We'll start in the American League, where the media (and Vegas) is likely to be obsessed once again with the Yankees and the Red Sox. Remember that it was Tampa Bay who bested them both last year before Texas ultimately won the AL Pennant.

AMERICAN LEAGUE BEST
NY Yankees: +166
Tampa Bay: +153
Minnesota: +110
Texas: +100
Boston: +74

Only five teams posted strong run differentials. Those were the four division winners and the wealthy Red Sox. Will those five rule the day again in 2011? Many pundits are picking Boston to surge back to the top of the league after several offseason acquisitions. The Red Sox are basically a consensus pick to win the AL East and post the best record in the league. Tampa Bay is supposed to fall back to earth. Don't underestimate them yourself until you see a drop off happening. History says it's tough for teams like Minnesota and Texas to maintain excellence in divisions that have some parity to them. We don't mean full up-and-down parity. But, the Twinkies will again be sweating CWS and Detroit. Texas hasn't heard the last of LAA and Oakland.

AMERICAN LEAGUE LURKERS
Chicago White Sox: +48
Oakland: +37
Toronto: +27
Detroit: +8
LA Angeles: -21

How's that for a transition? If Texas and Minnesota lose about +30 runs over 160 games...while somebody from the lurker class picks up that many, then we're going to have some very interesting races. It's horrible to be Toronto. Given the difficulty of their unbalanced schedule, +27 is something special. We've said it before. They should be lobbying hard to move into the AL Central so they have an actual shot to win a division!

AMERICAN LEAGUE WORST
Cleveland: -106
Kansas City: -169
Baltimore: -172
Seattle: -185

These four were really bottom of the barrel teams last year. Note the big drop off from #10 Los Angeles at -21 to #11 Cleveland at -106. We do expect one of these teams to surge to respectability in 2011. And, you baseball types in Vegas know that a team like this can be a HUGE moneymaker because it takes MONTHS for oddsmakers and fans to believe that the team really has improved that much. San Diego is a great example from last year. Texas is too for that matter, as nobody expected the Rangers to go from where they were to league champions.

As a general rule, the "best" are teams you'll want to consider fading because they'll be overpriced in April (champions don't often play like champions in April). Try to find one "lurker" and a potential darkhorse from the "worst" as a value side for early season play.

NATIONAL LEAGUE BEST
Philadelphia: +132
San Francisco: +114
Atlanta: +109
Cincinnati: +105
St. Louis: +95
San Diego: +84

That's the four playoff teams plus St. Louis and San Diego who were on the doorstep. Notice how +100 runs was a clean cutoff last year for making the playoffs in both leagues.

Philadelphia has become the NY Yankees of the NL in terms of media attention. Everyone's talking about their powerful rotation to a degree that anything less than 100 wins will be a disappointment. Well, that basically guarantees the Phils will be overpriced out of the gate. They can post a solid record and still lose money because they're so expensive.

The other teams are an interesting group...because there's still skepticism about San Francisco, San Diego, and Cincinnati in terms of their real chops. The Reds are seen as being in a three-way coin flip with St. Louis and Milwaukee this year in the NL Central...with the Cubs just behind them. San Francisco will battle Colorado and the LA Dodgers according to predictions and Vegas Regular Season Win totals. Nobody trusts San Diego no matter how many games they won last year!

NATIONAL LEAGUE LURKERS
Colorado: +53
NY Mets: +4
Florida: +2
LA Dodgers: -25

Note what a lousy transition that last paragraph was to THIS group. In the American League, the media is in synch with the market about lurkers. In the National League, it's like everybody forgot that the Dodgers were a losing team last year...and we haven't even gotten to the struggles of teams like Milwaukee and the Cubs. The Mets are supposedly going to fall off the map this season, which probably makes it the right time to give them some thought as a darkhorse.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WORST
Milwaukee: -54
Chicago Cubs: -82
Washington: -87
Houston: -118
Arizona: -123
Pittsburgh: -279

Yes, Milwaukee and the Cubs are being picked to contend in the NL Central despite disasters last season. We agree they have the talent to become relevant again. Let's wait until it happens before you go too crazy. Smart handicapping last year meant going against the teams everyone was stubborn about wanting to believe it...and backing the teams everyone was stubborn about hating. Several pairs of rose-colored glasses are about to crack...as they do every year in the early days of a new baseball season.

JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK is ready for opening day, opening weekend, April showers (of cash), and Mayflowers (trucks to pick up all the money)! Baseball begins Thursday with our best games from:

Detroit at NY Yankees on ESPN
Milwaukee at Cincinnati
San Diego at St. Louis on ESPN
LA Angels at Kansas City
San Francisco at LA Dodgers on ESPN

Be sure to take care of business early because most of the slate is in the afternoon. Friday will bring season openers in Philadelphia, Chicago, Colorado, Texas, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and elsewhere. Then, we're off and running for the full 2011 campaign. You can sign up for the month of April or the full season to enjoy the most bang for your buck. Or, try things out for a few days up front to test the waters. Always have your credit card handy when you log in. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back Thursday to preview the championship game in the NIT. Our expanded Final Four previews will run Saturday for Kentucky-Connecticut and Virginia Commonwealth-Butler. Soon we'll be diving back into the NBA just in time for intense playoff coverage. Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!

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