Let the games begin — literally. The countdown to the return of major sports has been reduced to mere hours, not days, weeks or months.
On March 11, the Mavericks closed out a win over the Nuggets. Watching it live, never has a game felt so inconsequential. A late-game review was a harbinger of what the next few months would be like: The ball stopped bouncing. Word began to spread among players that the season had been suspended. Nuggets coach Mike Malone likened the surreal evening to “something you see in a movie.”
It was conference tournament week in college basketball, and a few West Coast games were still on the board. Washington State was a double-digit underdog against Colorado in a game that tipped close to midnight ET. It seemed likely that this was the last game on the board for the foreseeable future. (Washington State pulled off the upset as a + 430 underdog). A few early games were played the next day — call it optimism, or maybe denial. But the inevitable cancellation of the NCAA tournament happened later that Thursday, just a day after the announcement had made headlines that March Madness would be played in empty arenas. In 24 hours, the world had changed.
The return of baseball this week is a symbol of hope. It represents a step toward a return to some degree of normalcy, however modest that step is. Days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann told the story of a conversation he’d had with a firefighter who had just lost a number of friends. Baseball was about to return from a one-week hiatus, and the man told Olbermann he was worried about the Mets. They had been playing very well before the break, and the firefighter was concerned they wouldn’t be able to sustain that momentum and catch the Braves in the NL East.
“The Mets?” Olbermann was shocked. Why would someone who had just experienced such unimaginable devastation be concerned with baseball? The firefighter acknowledged that he knew it didn’t matter, but for a few hours every night, he could sit down and pretend that it did. For all of baseball’s labor issues the last few months, it’s ironic that of all major sports, it is the first to return.
Before moving on to best bets, it’s important to note that all player props must be approached with extreme caution, especially when looking at Overs. Routines are off. Many players have gone nearly 10 months since playing in a game that counted. Managers will be especially careful with pitchers and pitch counts, so high strikeout and win props will be very risky ventures, not to mention the potential of contracting COVID-19. I would lean Under or pass on almost all props that involve counting stats. After looking last week at some teams that could surprise in the AL, let’s look at some sleepers in the NL.
Nats to win NL East + 220: Hard to ever call the defending champions sleepers, but getting Over 2-1 on them to win their division is value regardless of what you call it. Their run to the title was improbable and memorable. They started 19-31. They joined the 2003 Marlins in becoming the only teams to win the World Series despite not spending a single day in first place. They faced a two-run deficit in the eighth inning of the wild-card game against the Brewers, with two outs and two strikes and one of the league’s best relievers on the mound. They faced elimination twice in the NL Division Series against the Dodgers, including a three-run deficit late in the decisive Game 5. They trailed 3-2 in the World Series, with Games 6 and 7 in Houston. They overcame deficits in both games and ultimately raised the trophy. The Nationals washed away the bad taste that resonated from years of postseason failure, beating the heavily favored Astros. The Nats were as high as 2-1 before the series and as high as 6-1 entering Game 6. They will not return the same team, however. One of baseball’s best hitters, Anthony Rendon, will collect his ring while wearing an Angels uniform. Rendon’s loss is significant, but the pitching remains elite. The rotation still includes three of the top eight pitchers, according to NL Cy Young Award odds, and was given a long rest after a taxing season that ended just hours before Halloween. This is a four-team race, and a good one. But the Braves are already dealing with COVID-related issues, as Nick Markakis has opted out and Freddie Freeman is recovering from the virus and is questionable for the start of the season. The Mets and Phillies can really hit, but both have question marks in the rotation. Reigning two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom of the Mets left his last throwing session with back tightness, and Noah Syndergaard is out for the season after having Tommy John surgery. The Phillies have an ace in Aaron Nola but not a lot behind him in the rotation. Take the best rotation to capture the only banner they didn’t hang last year.
Reds to win NL Central + 300: Another underdog with a plethora of pitching. Sonny Gray was an All-Star last year and finished seventh in Cy Young voting. Luis Castillo was an All-Star as well and was in the mix to start the game. Trevor Bauer, an All-Star in ’18, was acquired midseason. The Reds are equipped to perhaps duplicate the Nationals’ blueprint, as they roster three of the top 14 NL Cy Young candidates. They also suffered a great deal of misfortune last year, going 23-34 in one-run games. Despite finishing 12 games under .500, their run differential was nearly even, suggesting they were much better than their record indicated. The NL Central does not have a team in the top seven for odds to win the World Series, meaning this division is up for grabs. At + 300, the Reds have too much pitching to pass.
Mets to make playoffs — Yes + 105: Their win total before last season was 85.5. They won 45 of 71 games after the All-Star break to put them at 85-76 heading into Game 162. A back-and-forth game headed to extra innings, and they trailed by two runs in the bottom of the 10th when Dominic Smith sent a fastball into the stands and Over bettors to the window to cash tickets they’d been holding since the previous winter. Their torrid summer was not enough to atone for a lackluster spring, however, and they fell short of the playoffs. However, no team should benefit more from the implementation of the DH than the Mets, who have often-injured slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes has battled a number of lower-body injuries and would likely be limited if required to play the field. However, at DH he probably can play regularly and contribute to a lineup that will be one of the NL’s deepest. While the rotation isn’t as strong as it has been the last few years, the starters went 31-11 in the second half of the season with a 3.05 ERA. Edwin Diaz was acquired before last season after a year when he was the most dominant reliever in baseball. He went from a sub-2.00 ERA to a mid-5.00, blew seven games and racked up seven losses, and he wasn’t even the closer for the entire season. Had Diaz not thrown a pitch last year, the Mets likely would have been in the playoffs. A bounce-back season from Diaz seems likely, since his stuff is so electric. And he has some help in the back of the bullpen. Seth Lugo had a 1.95 ERA in the second half of the season, Jeurys Familia has been the closer of a pennant-winning team and new acquisition Dellin Betances is a four-time All-Star. The bullpen is really good, the lineup is loaded and they might have the best pitcher in baseball in deGrom. The three-year playoff drought will be a thing of the past when October rolls around.