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Nick Mariano

Nick serves as a Senior Editor at Casino City and is also an integral part of the Online Casino City content team. He has written about fantasy sports, sports betting and iGaming for five years. Alongside working at Casino City, he is currently a lead fantasy sports columnist for RotoBaller, having written for FantasyPros and MLB.com as well.

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Top 10 Major League Baseball bets for the 2020 season

20 Jul 2020

By Nick Mariano
Major League Baseball finally begins this week, which means it’s time to lock in bets on what the shortened season will yield. With the season being more of a sprint rather than a marathon, longshot odds aren’t so wild, though an Orioles-Giants World Series is still very unlikely.

A little about me: I create player and team projections primarily for fantasy baseball purposes, but it’s easily translated to identifying value on the MLB Futures board. While I could wax poetic about how Mike Trout is a baseball deity, no one learns much from discussing his likelihood of winning another American League MVP or guessing about his opt-out status. Briefly, I believe 2020 favors AL teams, as the designated hitter addition to the NL creates uncertainty and their rosters were not constructed with that in mind.

With that in mind, let’s look at my top 10 favorite MLB Futures bets for the 2020 season. Odds were gathered as of 16 July.

Play ball!

10. Franmil Reyes to Hit the Most Home Runs at 40-to-1
Reyes hit 37 home runs in only 548 plate appearances over 150 games last season, staying hot despite a midseason trade from San Diego to Cleveland. Out of all hitters with at least 250 batted-ball events in 2019, Reyes ranked second in the MLB with an average exit velocity of 98.2 MPH on fly balls and line drives -- a measure that’s strongly correlated with power output. Only Nelson Cruz bested him (99.2 MPH), but Cruz is a riskier bet in his age-40 season after missing 42 games in 2019.

With a full offseason to settle into his new digs and adjust to the batter’s eye, Reyes could explode as Cleveland’s everyday designated hitter. He mashed five homers in spring training through 9 March, tied for most in the Majors with only three strikeouts in 27 at-bats. Spring training feels like a lifetime ago, but he lost 18 pounds over the winter and clearly still has the muscle, which should yield dividends in 2020.

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9. Rockies Under 27.5 wins
Having lived in Colorado for a time, I got to take in many Rockies games. Experienced bettors and baseball fans know that Coors Field is an offensive haven thanks to the altitude. For the uninitiated, the lesser density of air molecules offers weaker resistance to a flying baseball, which means the ball goes further. It also reduces the effectiveness of breaking pitches, which hurts their own pitchers more often than not.

I appreciate how four-time All Star Charlie Blackmon implemented a hitting program that is meant to reduce the Coors hangover during road trips, but it’s hard to believe in this team to make a push in 2020. They still play aging veterans in Matt Kemp and Daniel Murphy despite a plethora of young bats in Garrett Hampson and Sam Hilliard that deserve everyday playing time. Also, they may trade Nolan Arenado midseason after flirting with the idea in the offseason. In the end, scoring 9 runs per game does little good when you surrender 10 or more.

Not only did their 2019 starting pitchers have an MLB-worst 5.87 ERA, but their bullpen owned the third-worst collective ERA (5.18) and strikeout-minus-walk rate (11.1%) as well. Without any strong offseason acquisitions or pitching prospects, those failures will follow them into 2020 in a division where the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Padres all improved.

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8. Cardinals under 31.5 wins
I’ll get to my favorite for the NL Central in a bit, but the Cardinals will be hard-pressed to hit 32 wins in 2020. As of July 16, most sportsbooks have the line at 32.5 but FanDuel is still at 31.5. The biggest hit to the Red Birds is losing Marcell Ozuna’s bat at the heart of the order without any replacement. Even with his power in tow, the Cards only mustered a 94 weighted Runs Created Plus metric, which adjusts for things such as park factors and the era to neutralize externalities. The team’s 94 wRC+ was 15th in the MLB, hardly that of a division favorite.

Plus, their starting rotation’s 3.82 ERA enjoyed some luck, outrunning their 4.27 FIP and 4.36 xFIP on the year. The starters posted an 8.3% walk rate as a unit, the eighth-worst mark in the bigs. They were able to dance around big damage, but that’s not a sticky year-over-year skill to outrun peril on the basepaths. While I have hope for Carlos Martinez returning to the rotation and Jack Flaherty is a stud, several question marks remain in Dakota Hudson and an aging Adam Wainwright. Their usual closer, Jordan Hicks, has opted out of the season, while Giovanny Gallegos still hasn’t reported to camp as of 16 July.

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7. Blue Jays under 28 wins
Yes, I enjoy going against public optimism. Toronto has exciting times ahead thanks to their next-generation infield, but 2020 is too soon to start the parades. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio are all second-generation ballplayers entering their second MLB season, enthralling fantasy baseball players, bettors, and card collectors alike. And the Jays signed Hyun-Jin Ryu to help their rotation, so what’s the hold-up?

The 2019 Blue Jays had a bottom-10 team ERA of 4.79 en route to 67 wins while their collective batting average was .236, the worst mark in the Majors. Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. have a combined 1,014 MLB at-bats under their belt. Sure, they can beat up on Baltimore for some cheap wins, but the Rays alongside the injury-laden Red Sox and Yankees will still give Toronto nightmares.

Their current No. 2 pitcher is Chase Anderson, who comes over from Milwaukee having just posted a mediocre 4.21 ERA with less than a strikeout per inning (124 in 139 IP). He’s never logged more than 160 frames in a season and might be unavailable to start the year. Tanner Roark, their No. 3, hasn’t posted an ERA below 4.34 in any of the past three seasons and is fresh off a career-worst 1.40 WHIP. Matt Shoemaker has battled health issues over the past three years. They will likely need to dip into pitching depth to cover for injuries and fatigue but have little to offer past exciting prospect Nate Pearson.

Simply put, the rotation is still subpar and the inexperienced lineup has much to learn. Even the bullpen is exceptionally weak beyond Ken Giles at closer. Take advantage of rookie hype and hit the under.

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6. Starling Marte to win NL MVP at 100-to-1
Marte moves from a quiet Pittsburgh franchise over to an upstart Arizona one that could make serious noise in the NL West. If the Diamondbacks do threaten the Dodgers for the NL West crown or push beyond the divisional round, then I think Marte will be seen as the reason. With +10000 odds at his back, we’re going for calculated upside.

Some may perceive Marte to be injury-prone, but recent missed time can be chalked up to a suspension, colliding with a teammate, and a wrist injury in the field suffered via bracing himself. These aren’t soft-tissue injuries to worry about over the long run, so I’m not concerned here. In fact, his 29.0 ft/sec sprint speed from last season was a career-best, a 92nd-percentile mark. A team that trades for him will utilize that.

Then there’s his bat, which turned in a .295 average with a 96th-percentile .304 xBA last season. Folks may point at his weak overall exit velocity and question the power, but his swing is more complicated than one output. Separate line drives and fly balls from grounders and you see a different picture, as his 93.8 MPH average exit velocity on flies and liners is tied with sluggers such as Trevor Story and Mike Moustakas.

What he does with those fly balls should also change thanks to the trade, as Chase Field is more hitter-friendly than Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Arizona did install a humidor last year, but the field still plays up right-handed power. In a short season, we need players capable of greatness. A 60-game stretch from June 25 through August 31 last year saw Marte hit .314 with 12 homers and 14 steals. Now playing for a contender in an improved venue, Marte could flirt with a 15-15 season and thrust himself into the MVP conversation.

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5. Trea Turner to Record the Most Steals at 6-to-1
Mallex Smith is the understandable favorite at most books after swiping 46 bags in 2019, but would you buy that his Sprint Speed (feet per second) was “only” 29.4 ft/sec, ranking 28th among 568 players? Astounding, but not the best. Washington’s Trea Turner was second in the MLB, clocking in at 30.4 ft/sec, trailing only Tim Locastro, who doesn’t have a starting job. But raw sprint speed isn’t everything! You aren’t running a straight race once on the basepaths.

So let’s talk about the 90-foot splits, where Statcast measures the home-to-first time for a hitter. Fangraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman uncovered that the split speed measured there correlates more with stolen bases. Turner’s 3.74-second time to 90 feet is tied for second among all qualified players, behind only Adalberto Mondesi and just ahead of Mallex Smith’s 3.75-second mark. But Mondesi and Smith are both measured as left-handed hitters, who are already running towards first on their afterswing and enjoy a slight boost because of it.

And in baseball, you can’t steal first base. Running quickly to it helps, but you have to justify playing with the bat and glove. Smith had an awful .227 batting average and .300 on-base percentage last year. Adalberto Mondesi’s .291 OBP was even worse. Meanwhile, Turner had a .353 OBP. His bat is strong and his job is safe. He should generate more plate appearances by being worthy of hitting atop the batting order, let alone Washington being better overall compared to Seattle and Kansas City.

The more the order performs and turns over, the more opportunities you have to get on base and steal. Turner’s 2019 was stunted by a broken finger in April, but 35 steals in 122 games and 569 plate appearances is no joke and he totaled 740 PAs in 162 games two years ago. Take the value in Trea.

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4. Gerrit Cole to Record the Most Strikeouts at +230
It’s not groundbreaking, but Cole is still above the expected value for me at most prices. His 326 punchouts in just 212 ? IP last season was astounding. Despite adjusting to a catcher with defensive question marks in Gary Sanchez and a new team, Cole has such an advantage over the rest of the league in Ks at this point. His skill set provides that foundation no matter the surroundings, sans a move to Coors Field. It’s worth noting that Sanchez did focus on pitch framing during the offseason.

To speak plainly, there’s not much by way of reasonable competition for Cole. Justin Verlander has admitted to tweaking with his mechanics in the offseason for longevity’s sake. Max Scherzer has battled neck and back issues as his mileage gets up there. Jacob deGrom is a bonafide ace, but he’s got back spasms and never approached 300 K’s in a full season -- it’s just not in his arsenal. Cole’s 16.8% swinging-strike rate led the Majors (surprise) while Scherzer, Verlander, deGrom, and Luis Castillo rounded out the top-five. Castillo’s changeup is devastating, but his 10.1% walk rate in ‘19 limited his upside. This leaves Cole with a strong lead on the pack to stand tall as a solid bet.

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3. Cincinnati Reds to Win the NL Central at +250
I already talked down the Cardinals, so let’s praise the Reds. A flurry of offseason moves saw them get a left-handed bat at cleanup in Mike Moustakas, a sleeper MVP candidate in Nick Castellanos and a stellar on-base asset for leadoff in Shogo Akiyama.

Castellanos is a particular point of interest, as he’s been a plus bat that’s never enjoyed a hitter’s venue like Great American Ballpark. His expected stats via Statcast are top of the line, with a .283 xBA (83rd percentile) and .547 xSLG (90th percentile). He led the Majors with 58 doubles in 2019, which means several of those could turn into homers in 2020.

Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Trevor Bauer make for a lethal 1-2-3 punch in the rotation while Anthony DeSclafani has been effective when healthy and Wade Miley fixed an alleged pitch-tipping issue that plagued him last September. Their bullpen isn’t spectacular, but Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, and Amir Garrett can hold down the late frames responsibly. If you want to play it safer, just take the Over on 31.5 wins. If you want more risk, you can find Cincy taking the NL pennant around +1500.

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2. Lucas Giolito to win the AL Cy Young at 15-to-1
The Chicago White Sox flamethrower was a highly-touted prospect who hadn’t put it together despite top-prospect pedigree but saw mechanical adjustments yield a breakout 2019. His strikeout rate more than doubled, going from 16.1% to 32.3% -- fourth-best among qualified starters -- as he also cut his walk rate by 3.5 percentage points. The White Sox were perhaps the most-improved team of this offseason, with the biggest addition being a critical one for Giolito.

Yasmani Grandal isn’t just a strong offensive catcher, he’s also one of the best defensive gloves behind the dish. According to Baseball Prospectus, Grandal had the third-best Catcher Defensive Adjustment score (and Fielding Runs Above Average). What makes Giolito’s 2019 even more impressive is he did so with James McCann and Welington Castillo, who ranked 111th and 122nd out of 123, respectively.

With optimism soaring for Cleveland and Minnesota in the AL Central, the White Sox could surprise many. No matter what, they get to pick on the same lowly offenses of Detroit and Kansas City. With Gerrit Cole adjusting to a new venue and Justin Verlander making mechanical changes for longevity’s sake, the door is open for Giolito to have a Cy Young campaign. For what it’s worth, Yu Darvish at +2000 is my favorite NL Cy Young bet. If you want to stack Rays with me, Charlie Morton is alongside Giolito at +1500 at FanDuel as of July 16..

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1. Tampa Bay Rays (20-to-1) and Twins (16-to-1) to win the World Series

When one ponders which team is best suited to think outside the box and capitalize on an unorthodox season, the Rays have to be the first. They platoon with the best of them and made the “Opener” into a mainstream conversation. We just discussed the Blue Jays, the Orioles are still rebuilding, and the Red Sox are down Chris Sale and Mookie Betts. The Yankees are rightful favorites but the Rays are strong Wild Card contenders.

Meanwhile, the Yankees lost Luis Severino for the season and may be without Masahiro Tanaka at the outset after he was concussed by a Giancarlo Stanton comebacker. Stanton himself is likely limited to DH duties thanks to a calf injury. Aaron Judge is coming off a lengthy cracked rib recovery while Aaron Hicks just returned from Tommy John surgery. Both DJ LeMahieu and Aroldis Chapman are out with COVID-19 as of July 14. Gerrit Cole is a force to be reckoned with, but he’ll only play a role in 20% of their games at most. There are vulnerabilities here.

Then there’s Tampa Bay, who has Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow as a three-headed pitching dragon in front of the best bullpen in baseball. Their pen led the MLB in WAR (7.7) in 2019, due in large part to a midseason trade for Nick Anderson. The 29-year-old would record a whopping 41 strikeouts against just three walks and 12 hits allowed over 21 ? IP. At +1800 to win the World Series and around +800 to take the AL East, the Rays could surprise baseball with flexible strategies and an unstoppable bullpen.

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As I stated at the outset, I truly believe the AL has a big edge in 2020 and I’m happy to present two profitable routes to the World Series. The Twins have so much going for them in 2020. Signing Josh Donaldson’s stellar glove and bat while trading for Kenta Maeda helps improve all facets of the squad. A full season of healthy Miguel Sano could see him lead the MLB in homers by double-digits, as his Barrel per Batted-Ball-Event rate of 21.2% in 2019 paced the MLB among qualified hitters. He also led the Majors with a 57.2% rate of hitting balls at 95+ MPH, just edging Aaron Judge.

We should mention how the Twins led the MLB with 307 home runs last season, despite missing Sano for nearly half the year and now effectively substituting Donaldson in for C.J. Cron. We must question how much regression Max Kepler and Mitch Garver will face after breakout seasons, but their weak division gives them a clear path to the playoffs. And they should have Michael Pineda and Rich Hill available as pitching reinforcements for October.

Of the four favorites to win their divisions at below even odds, Minnesota is the longshot behind the Yankees, Dodgers, and Astros at most books. By holding the fifth-longest odds to win the World Series of the six presumed division winners, they are a strong value out of those most likely to enter the divisional round.

The Twins bullpen led the Majors with a 3.92 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) metric, which looks to adjust for defensive factors and see what pitchers could control for. And again, they addressed defense by bringing in Donaldson, whose 15 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) was third-best at the hot corner in 2019. If you’re looking for some October juice, head on over to the Twin Cities.

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