Gambling on baseball 2020: Another season of bets and balls

Fans who think they know how the year is going to play out for Cubs and Sox have plenty of wagering opportunities

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Yasmani Grandal

Yasmani Grandal (left, with Dylan Cease) was a key offseason acquisition for the Sox. Comparatively, the Cubs did little in the offseason.

John Antonoff/for the Sun-Times

LAS VEGAS — Since the end of 2019, the White Sox have been on the ascent while the Cubs have been on the descent where it matters most, in the pocketbooks of patrons who have been affecting the betting lines of both teams.

At Station Casinos, a chain of sportsbooks throughout the valley, the Sox had a victory total of 83½ games, with a minus-115 price on the over, on

Dec. 30, 2019. Eight days later, the price on the over had moved to minus-145, offsetting cash flow from those bullish on the Sox.

Five weeks later, the victory total itself was boosted to 84½, reflecting waves of interest in the Sox, with an over price of minus-125. The under cost was minus-105, or $105 to win $100.

“The White Sox, to me, are the team that everyone is excited about, that everyone is getting energized about,” upstate New York handicapper Tom Barton said.

Count Dave Cokin among the enthused. A professional handicapper since he moved to Vegas from Rhode Island in 1987, he nabbed a ticket on the Sox to go over when it was at 83½.

“They’re one of the sexy picks this year,” Cokin said. “I do like their offense a lot. If they’re in the hunt, they’ll probably buy at the [trade] deadline because they’re hungry to make the playoffs.”

Conversely, the Cubs’ total of 87½ — the over at minus-115 two days before the new year — has been shaved to 86½, with the under the favorite at minus-145. In the National League, only the Giants’ projected total has dropped farther, from 71½ to 69½.

Moreover, in the NL, only the Central Division-rival Reds have seen their total increase by more than a game, from 82½ to 84½ wins.

“The Cubs could have trouble winning half of their games,” Cokin said. “They won’t be terrible, but I’d be surprised if they’re in the playoffs.”

A SportsLine projection model that went 4-1 with its preseason predictions of the top-five totals a year ago has the Sox, among its current top-five selections, as likely to win fewer than 78 games. The books are well aware of such information, which might explain their exuberance at welcoming over wagers on Sox totals in the low 80s.

“The knee-jerk [reaction] would be the Sox over their win total, with all the additions they made,” said Doug “The Sheriff” Fitz, who logged more than 30 years in police departments in Cleveland and North Las Vegas before handicapping full-time in 2006. “But that’s baked into that.”

Barton made conclusions about Chicago’s baseball teams that coerced him to avoid both of their futures markets. “That’s the dichotomy here,” he said. “I think the White Sox are a little too young for my taste, and the Cubs are a little too old.”

CUBS (84-78 in 2019,

5-year average of 94.2 victories)

With a 51-30 record at Wrigley Field last year, the Cubs returned a profit of nearly $600 if $100 had been wagered on them in every home game. The road was a different story, and they faded into an offseason in which owner Tom Ricketts stood pat.

Among the Athlon, Lindy’s and Street & Smith’s preseason annuals, two picked the Sox to make the playoffs and promoted outfielder Luis Robert as the American League rookie of the year, while one trumpeted Sox skipper Edgar Renteria as AL manager of the year.

None of the three publications selected the Cubs for anything, of which Barton approves. He expects the organization to continue a neutral tack throughout the year.

“The fact that they did nothing, and not only did nothing but really were not a major player this offseason,” Barton said, “makes me think that Cubs management is saying, ‘Yeah, in 2020, we’re not making that big move.’ They are a confusing team. I know Cubs fans are angry.

“Are they saving their move for July? Because if you’re telling me they’re saving their move for July, I’m buying in. I don’t think the Cubs will be buried. They’ll be over .500. They’ll be in the race. Will they throw the hammer in July or is this a team that, no, they just won’t spend this year?”

Dana Lane, a handicapper in Vegas for nearly 30 years, believes the Cardinals and Brewers will regress in the NL Central, the improved Reds will make strides and the Cubs will prosper even if they make no moves by the trade deadline. At the Westgate

SuperBook, the Cards and Cubs are the 2-to-1 favorites to win the division, the Reds are 11-4 and the Brewers 5-1.

“I think [the Cubs] are confident that they have the best lineup in the division in a park where they thrive,” Lane said. “In my best guess, they sneak over the win total with 10 of their last 12 at Wrigley” against the Pirates, Rockies and Cards.

The Cubs have the same lineup that produced 256 homers in 2019, sixth-most in the majors, led by Kyle Schwarber’s 38. Fifty-three percent of Schwarber’s hits went for extra bases, the fourth-best MLB rate.

New manager Dave Ross is experimenting with Kris Bryant in the leadoff spot.

“I think people are still expecting him to be this massive superstar, [but] his level has been told,” Barton said of Bryant. “He had one peak season. Now he’s going to bat first? That means they don’t believe in him as a middle-of-the-order, we-can’t-move-him kind of guy.”

Barton mentions Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez in the same tone, even though that Bryant-Rizzo-Baez trio combined to smack 87 dingers and each hit better than .280. “They are stars, they are All-Stars . . . they’re just not superstars that can kind of carry a team. Baez had his one peak season. As talented as he is, he’s got some holes in his game.”

The Cubs have a good lineup, said Cokin, even with outfielder Jason Heyward (.251, 21 homers) producing a subpar season, “but I don’t like their [pitching] staff at all. It’s an old staff that needs to be rebuilt.”

The projected starting rotation averages 32 years, with 36-year-old lefty Jon Lester in the main role, Yu Darvish (career-worst 33 homers allowed last year) at No. 2

and Kyle Hendricks — some of whose stuff a scout compared favorably to Greg Maddux — in the third slot, followed by Jose Quintana (career-worst 4.68 ERA in 2019) and Tyler Chatwood.

However, a staff ERA of 4.10 was seventh in baseball, and only three teams allowed fewer than its 195 home runs. The highlight of the bullpen is stalwart closer Craig Kimbrel, whose horrible September belied a sterling career.

“You got a whole lotta ‘threes’ [No. 3 starters] on that team,” Barton said. “I’m a Yankees fan, and two years ago I felt the same about them. A bunch of threes don’t give you innings. A bunch of threes will give you a solid record. But because of that, I don’t think they will be a playoff team.”

WHITE SOX (72-89 in 2019,

5-year average of 71 victories)

In the market for a keen bar bet? Have a fellow elbow-bender name the four teams that produced a betting profit both at home and on the road in 2019. Most might tap the Yankees, maybe even the Braves. A die-hard fan might know how well the Athletics played last season, too.

Perhaps only a South Side lifer, though, could include the Sox, whose profits were slim — especially at home — but their regular plus price returned dividends to offset the fact that they lost more than they won.

Such chatter is folly to pros on both sides of the counter, whose livelihood is sports betting. What happened last year is as insignificant as the 102 years that passed between postseasons that included both the Sox and Cubs. That happened in 1906 and only once more, in 2008, for those keeping score.

“Doesn’t matter,” Cokin said. “Historical stuff doesn’t mean anything. Historical stuff is mainly for trivia, that’s all it is.”

Enthusiasm at Guaranteed Rate Field might rise with outfielder Luis Robert, whom MLB.com rated as the third-best prospect in the game. Barton, though, is cautious about deigning Robert anything before it’s earned.

“I’m not sure if he will come into the league and just hit the ground firing,” Barton said. “We all thought Vlad Guerrero Jr. would absolutely tear the league apart last year, but he had a difficult time, early on, and had pretty pedestrian numbers for most of the season.”

Guerrero had been hailed by many before his rookie season for the Blue Jays in 2019, in which he hit .272 with 15 homers and 69 RBI.

“I think Luis Robert will have a good career,” Barton said, “I just don’t know about this year.”

In a busy offseason, longtime Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf blessed the acquisitions of catcher Yasmani Grandal, slugger Edwin Encarnacion and outfielder Nomar Mazara, to go with Jose Abreu and burgeoning star Eloy Jimenez.

At SuperBook odds of 40-1, Jimenez is among the top 20 choices to lead baseball in home runs. His 15.1 at-bats per home run tied him for 21st in the league, and Encarnacion’s 13.2 rate placed him 10th.

“They are going to have a dynamic offense,” Cokin said. “If their pitching holds up, they have a real shot to win that division.”

Minnesota is the 5-9 SuperBook favorite to win the AL Central, Cleveland is 13-4 and the Sox 7-2, pitting them in a wild-card joust with Tampa Bay and Oakland.

The Sox’ staff is topped by Lucas Giolito, whose serious offseason a year ago launched him to a career-best 14-9 season, with a 3.41 ERA. General manager Rick Hahn also added lefties Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez, whom Cokin calls “yesterday’s news.” Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez are penciled in at the back of the rotation.

“Giolito is not an ace,” Barton said. “Is he a No. 1? Sure. But he’s not an ace. So you’re going with Giolito, who probably should be a No. 2, as your No. 1. You’re going with Keuchel, who probably should be a three, as a two. And Gonzalez, who should be a four, is a three. Everyone is getting bumped up one. That’s not a good recipe for me.”

Lane, however, likes Giolito’s ingredients and speculates that he’ll be part of the AL Cy Young Award discussion. He’s 20-1 at the SuperBook.

Like the Cubs, Lane considers the home stretch for the Sox to be enviable, with 10 of their last 16 consisting of seven against Kansas City and three at Detroit to cap the regular season.

“I have high hopes,” Lane said. “Love this team. I think they’ll finish in second [in their division], with a real chance of grabbing a wild-card spot.”

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