The 2017 Major League Baseball season ended less than a month ago, but pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in about 90 days. Before the 2017 seasons becomes a distant memory, smart bettors should use their still-relatively-fresh knowledge and insight from the year that was to find value for 2018.
Considering what this offseason could look like, there are a couple of bargains worth serious consideration. But not all of the favorites can be backed at this stage.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 19/4
The best team during the 2017 regular season, the Dodgers ran through the National League playoffs before Yu Darvish fell apart in the World Series. They are the favorites for 2018 in large part because the foundation is in place. With young hitters Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, the best pitcher of this generation, Clayton Kershaw, and the usually untouchable Kenley Jansen locking down the ninth, the Dodgers are filled to the brim with top-end talent.
If LA wants to avoid a huge luxury tax again, they won’t be able to bring back some of their free agents, which include Darvish, Brandon Morrow, and Tony Watson on the mound, and Andre Ethier, Curtis Granderson, Logan Forsythe, and Chase Utley in the field. That said, even if they lost all of those guys, they would have a very good starting rotation, a phenomenal closer, and a solid lineup. It’s a short price — LA’s 19/4 odds carry a 17.4% implied probability — but LA will be back in a big way next season, and they would have value at a number as short as 4/1 (20% implied probability). The National League competition isn’t as fierce as the AL, and the Dodgers unquestionably have the most talent.
Cleveland Indians: 13/2
One year after losing to the Cubs in extra innings of the World Series, the Tribe returned with a vengeance, posting the best record in the American League thanks to a torrid second half, which included a magical 22-game winning streak late in the season. The playoffs were a massive disappointment — Cleveland blew a 2-0 lead against the Yankees in the ALDS — they have a talented group back including Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, Cy Young-winner Corey Kluber, and the most valuable reliever in baseball, Andrew Miller. Several significant contributors are free agents (Carlos Santana, Bryan Shaw, Jay Bruce) and would be tough to lose, but we already know that the most valuable pieces are returning.
Like the Dodgers, there is no doubt Cleveland is good, but the price isn’t right. Their 13/2 odds carry a 13.2% implied probability, and given the state of the rest of the American League (i.e. very strong), that’s overly optimistic.
Houston Astros: 7/1
When you consider that the Astros (12.5% implied probability) are essentially co-favorites to win the American League with Cleveland, you aren’t paying a big tax for what the 2017 champs just achieved. That said, as great as Justin Verlander has been his entire career, he is unlikely to duplicate that magical run from last year, particularly as the soon-to-be 35-year-old continues to age. The bullpen also needs something of an overhaul based on what we saw in the playoffs.
So betting on Houston means believing that (a) management will address the areas of need in the offseason and (b) their potent 2017 offense, led by Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, and Carlos Correa, will continue to mash. I have a good deal of confidence in the former. I have a great deal of confidence in the latter. At 7/1 they are a fine bet, but not not all that exciting.
New York Yankees: 10/1
Since this conversation is not just about which team is most likely to win, but which team offers the best value, we have to look hard at the Yankees. New York exceeded expectations last year, led by rookie AL MVP runner-up Aaron Judge, and have an incredibly enviable forecast: their young talent is locked up on inexpensive contracts and they have money to spend. That said, with next year’s free-agent class shaping up to be much stronger than this year’s, the 2018 Yankees might not look significantly different than the team we saw this year.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Judge, Luis Severino, and Gary Sanchez are more than one-year wonders; the starting rotation (Severino, Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka) is solid and proved good enough in the playoffs; and the bullpen is arguably the best baseball. Add in a few veteran hitters, and you have a team not only ready to roll from day one, but able to make moves as needed to be a nightmare come playoff time. Significant value is present with the Yanks at 10/1 (9.1% implied probability).
Chicago Cubs: 21/2
The window for Chicago to win another championship remains open. Before young players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber get ridiculously expensive and tough decisions have to be made, the Cubs ought to put their resources into winning big. While ace Jake Arrieta is a free agent, you can count on the team either re-signing him or spending big on/trading for a suitable replacement, who would join Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana in one of the NL’s top-five rotations. The same goes for free-agent closer Wade Davis: if he departs, they’ll make find a new piece to fill that hole. The team learned the value of bullpen depth in its five-game ouster at the hands of the Dodgers last year.
The Cubs have made a ton of cash in the last few years, winning a championship in a city starved for success, and with that has come a ton of available resources. They have the pieces and the cash to acquire what they need. Expect the Cubs to be aggressive in the offseason and to assemble one of the favorites going into 2018. When they do make their significant moves, their odds will get shorter. Getting them at 10/1 (9.1% implied probability)? Now we’re talking