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Baseball Surprise Teams

   by Bryan Leonard - 03/10/2008

Baseball wagering is about money-lines and value, meaning you have to pick straight up winners, not point spreads. There are many surprise teams each season. Some are teams that were expected to be weak or mediocre but explode as one of the better teams in the league, making a pennant run. Other times, surprise teams are ones that were supposed to be real bad but end up closer to .500. Teams in that category can also offer outstanding wagering value. If you can win 50% as a money-line dog, for instance, you will turn a terrific profit.

Cincinnati Reds: New manager Dusty Baker might have come to Cincy at the right time. This offense is strong, especially in such a hitter friendly park. But the pitching staff holds the key and doesn’t look too bad. They have a rare ace in 29-year old Aaron Harang (16-6, 3.73 ERA, 231 innings) anchoring the staff.

Bronson Arroyo has gone 14-10 and 9-15 the last two years. His ERA was 4.84 in the first half last season and 3.55 in the second half. Matt Belisle and 28-year old lefty Jeremy Affeldt will battle for rotation spots but the guy to watch is 21-year old Homer Bailey. He’s their top pitching prospect and opponents hit just .257 off him last season.

The bullpen gets major help as they spent $46 million for closer Francisco Cordero. He saved 44 games with a 2.98 ERA for the Brewers last season, fanning 86 in 63 innings! The middle relief is potentially decent with David Weathers, Jared Burton and Todd Coffey. They don’t have to dominate, either, with offensive players like 2B Brandon Phillips, Junior Griffey and Adam Dunn crushing the baseball.

Tampa Bay: The Devil Rays changed their name and will be call the Rays for this season. They also have new uniforms. What is intriguing about this 2008 addition is the starting pitching and improved defense. They move Akinori Iwamura (.285, 12 steals) to second base, which should be an upgrade defensively, while shortstop Jason Bartlett comes over from Minnesota, where he stole 23 bases. He has excellent range, as well.

Also from Minnesota was one of their top young arms in starting pitcher Matt Garza. He has a great fastball and, strangely, was 1-5 with a 5.25 ERA at home, but 4-2 with a 2.49 ERA on the road. He could combine with 24-year old Scott Kazmir (13-9, 3.48 ERA) and 26-year old James Shields (12-8, 3.85 ERA in 215 innings) to give the Rays a terrific starting young trio.

And there is returning offensive talent with speedy LF Carl Crawford (.315, 11 HRs, 80 RBI), 23-year old CF B.J. Upton (24 HRs, .300, 22 steals) and 1B Carlos Pena (46 HRs, 121 runs). They lack pitching depth and a reliable bullpen which will derail any postseason hopes, but for wagering value during the season, this looks like a team than can win in many ways. Keep in mind that Tampa Bay the last few years has been very good at home, but shaky on the road.

Diamondbacks: Out West, the Dodgers are getting a lot of ink by adding Andruw Jones and Joe Torre, while the Rockies are still media darlings after their improbable run to the World Series. However, everyone might be overlooking Arizona, a team that won 90 games and appears to be even better.

They have a rare ace in 28-year old Brandon Webb (18-10, 236 innings, 3.01 ERA). Arizona made a trade with Oakland to get another ace in righty Dan Haren. The 27-year old Haren went 15-9 with a 3.07 ERA in 222 innings in the AL, as opponents hit just .247 off him. Talk about a terrific one-two punch! They still have 44-year old Randy Johnson and his 5 Cy Young Awards, the No. 3 starter on this deep staff, along with Doug Davis and Micah Owings.

The offense was a weakness, but has a lot of young players that can only get better. LF Eric Byrnes (21 HRs, 50 steals, 83 RBI) is the only key player over 30. CF Chris Young (32 HRs, 27 steals), 3B Mark Reynolds (.279, 17 HRs) and shortstop Stephen Drew (12 HRs), J.D.’s brother, should improve. There is a lot of upside and the pitching staff appears built for the long haul.

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