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Eden Jon 22nd Jul 2014 - 7:29

US Trader's Sports View

MLB: Call to the Bullpen

Baseball supporters from the American League will be at ease following the 85th All-Star game. The 5-3 victory will give the AL representative home field advantage in the World Series.

Dubbed as Jeter-Fest, the game always carried additional significance to Yankees legend Derek Jeter. It was 'the captain's' final appearance in the midsummer classic but emotions ran higher than expected after Cardinals Ace Adam Wainwright commented on throwing Jeter a few 'pipe shots'. The slinger was quick in suppressing these reports by apologising that he miss-spoke but he will no doubt be in the commissioner's bad books.

Home advantage aside, we still have lots of baseball to enjoy before post season begins. Ten teams will make the playoffs (6 division winners and 4 wild cards). The major league has lots to offer but when broken down it is driven entirely by numbers.

If any of you film buffs have seen Moneyball, then you will know it either comes down to a general manager crunching the numbers, studying the sabermetric grids to decide the best starting line-up for their daily match-ups or, more simply, a difference in salary cap. Teams can dominate the market offering multi-million dollar deals to any free agent who wants to set his family up for life and then some.

So which teams represent the best betting opportunities before we enter the knockout phase? Currently, the obvious money will follow Oakland Athletics, 2/7 to win the American League West. They have the best record in baseball and, of the 62 games remaining, 30 are against teams with records below .500. They hold a two game advantage over division rivals LA Angels but will face the Halos ten times before the regular season closes. The AL West looks a two horse race but it seems that the favourite has hit the front and is full of running.

Elsewhere, it is hotting up in the National League Central. This is a tough division with only one team below .500 for the season. The well-fancied Cardinals still head the market (St Louis @ 1/1 to win the NL Central) despite being two games back on the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew will be pinching themselves as their team opened as 14/1 outsiders back in April but General Manager Ron Roenicke has worked wonders with a middle of the order salary cap. The team itself has a steady rotation (in a pitcher friendly ball park) paired with a batting order of real depth. Despite some tough away series in the second half, my value pick at the moment is the Milwaukee Brewers @ 12/5 for the NL Central.

The NL Central also includes Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, each have capable teams, however they have struggled with momentum this season. I have traded several live games for both and despite improvement, a few consecutive bad results could send either team into a slump. This isn't affordable when starting three/five games back.

Keith Larkin (24 July)

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NHL: Who can end King's reign?

A scintillating 2013-14 NHL season concluded with the Los Angeles Kings repeating their 2011-12 Stanley Cup triumph, convincingly seeing off the challenge of the New York Rangers in the Final and cementing the Kings' position as one of the genuine hockey superpowers. All of which means that the franchise for whom the legendary Wayne Gretzky once played has now won 2 of the last 3 Stanley Cups and looks determined to build a hockey dynasty out on the West Coast.

Southern California seems an unlikely destination for such a success story to unfold, given the much greater support and enthusiasm for the sport in its traditional heartlands to the North in Canada, and to the East in cities such as Boston and Detroit. Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue against the Kings lifting Lord Stanley's Cup once more in 2015. All of the major pieces remain intact. They still have the league's outstanding goaltender in Jonathan Quick. They also have arguably the NHL's elite defenseman in Drew Doughty. Not to mention the offensive firepower provided by the likes of their outstanding center Anze Kopitar, Conn Smythe trophy winner Justin Williams, and sharpshooter Marian Gaborik - newly signed to a 7-year contract. The current price of 8/1 looks sure to attract interest as it seems highly likely the Kings will once again be there or thereabouts next June.

So who stands the best chance of toppling the Kings in 2015? It is hard to look much further than their Western Conference rivals the Chicago Blackhawks, who appear to be one of the few teams who can match the Kings' sheer depth.  Indeed, with the star duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane newly signed to 8-year contract extensions, and the ever-reliable goaltender Corey Crawford again between the pipes, the Hawks appear ready to go again this year in an attempt to wrestle the Cup back to Chicago once more and are rated as a 13/2 chance to do just that.

And what of the Eastern Conference? The Boston Bruins were the last team from the East to lift the Cup in 2011, and it is difficult to argue against the compilers who strongly believe that Zdeno Chara and co represent the East's best chance of success, installing the Bruins as 3/1 favourites for the Eastern Conference and 13/2 joint favourites with the Blackhawks outright. Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be in for a transitional season, undergoing a management reshuffle and allowing several big name departures in the first week of free agency. The early price of 10/1 on the Penguins is therefore not one that appeals, especially given their much publicized playoff struggles in recent seasons. It will also be a tall order for last season's losing finalists the New York Rangers to go anywhere near as well in 2015 - despite the continued excellence of 'King' Henrik Lundqvist in goal. The Rangers are reasonably priced at 12/1 for those who disagree.

The growing disparity between East and West makes for what I see as a superb betting opportunity. The 8/11 on the Stanley Cup winner to come from the Western Conference seems like terrific value, with several strong contenders such as the St Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks for punters to rely upon should the main contenders in Los Angeles and Chicago falter. The East, on the other hand, appears to have very little in reserve should the Boston Bruins slip up. It would be a surprise if this price were not to shorten before the puck drops once again on October 8th.

Regardless of whoever does emerge victorious, it is sure to be another frenetic, tough and extremely enjoyable campaign for hockey fans everywhere, with betting opportunities aplenty.

Rob Glaister (11 July)

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Can Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics finally put an end to their post season woes?

The punters certainly aren't convinced. Despite the A's being the favourites for the American League (5/2, with the Detroit Tigers next favourite at 3/1) and for the World Series (5/1 with the Tigers at 11/2), the betting population remain sceptical of their ability to go the distance in the Post Season. Far more popular are teams such as fan-favourite Yankees (currently 20/1), who despite only just keeping their heads above .500 this year, have a far better play-off record.

And is it really any surprise? The team which Billy Beane has crafted with a field of baseball analysis called sabremetrics has consistently struggled in the Post Season. Since 1997 when he was appointed General Manager, the team has made the playoffs a total of seven times, but during these campaigns they have mustered only a single Divisional Series win against the Twins in 2006. In addition to this, all but one Post Season exits have come from a Game 5 matchup of a best of 5 series, seemingly suggesting that they're unable to get the big results when it matters most.

Beane has even admitted himself "My s**t doesn't work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is luck".

In fairness, the A's have compiled some decent feats in the Regular Season under Beane's leadership, and usually on a stringent budget. The A's reached the playoffs in four consecutive years between 2000 to 2003 and did so with an annual pay roll which peaked at 25th of the 30 MLB teams during this time, and in the 2006 season they became the first ever team to reach 20 consecutive wins in the American League. This year, they top the entire league being the only team with over a .600 record, and amassing impressive stats such as being the 2nd highest scoring team with 460 runs, the team allowing the least number of runs at 314, and the team with the highest number of walks (at 359 a whole 28 more than any other team). The recent addition of pitcher Jeff Samardzija​ certainly isn't going to cause them any harm either.

As such it's not surprising that while little money has been staked on the favourites for the World Series and the American League, the public have been a lot more encouraged by their chances of picking up the American League West Divisional title for a third consecutive year (currently at 2/5) which is based solely on Regular Season performance and is where the vast majority of the money has been seen.

It would seem that the only way Beane can convince the world that his team can make the big time is to actually do it. If he could somehow replicate his team's Regular Season performance into the Post Season, there would be seemingly no stopping them, but history suggests this has been far easier said than done.

Chris Randall (11 July)

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There's no place like home?

LeBron James confirmed Friday that he will return to Ohio to re-join the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although a contract is yet to be finalised, Cleveland will offer the maximum deal of 4 years and $88 million to sign their former number one draft pick of 2003. The odds have now tumbled on the Cavaliers to win the championship (Cleveland Cavaliers @ 4/1 - NBA Championship Winner), following several lumpy bets from clients punting on the return of King James.

The four-time MVP forward controversially left Cleveland in pursuit of championships. James had success by agreeing to a lower pay deal to form a trio of all-stars with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Together they played four championship series, winning two. Whilst Miami cantered to the finale this year, they were hardly as dominant as we have seen. San Antonio controlled this year's finals using squad depth and minutes management masterminded by Gregg Popovich. They won the series in five games.

Spurs' bench scoring was the best in the league, keeping the pressure firmly on Miami's stars throughout the series. Veteran Tim Duncan opted into another year with the titleholders despite turning 38 in April. After an illustrious career with the Spurs (5 titles, 3 times MVP), Tim could have stepped down on top. Playing under the current regime, Duncan can play limited minutes and still be effective. San Antonio will be a popular selection amongst purer basketball fans, as proven last year, as one of William Hill's losing selections. (San Antonio @ 9/2 - NBA Championship Winner).

Whilst LeBron is considered the best in the NBA, would the market favouritism have followed him wherever he signed? Or would he have been better off staying in the heat? The money soon followed the breaking news which suggests that Cleveland will be serious contenders. LeBron will be surrounded by prospects, as the Cavaliers have received first pick in the draft three of the last four seasons. Their latest selections, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, are both Canadian ballers but more will be asked of Bennett after he was slow to get going in his rookie season. Andrew Wiggins was a popular number one pick with pundits, considered as NBA ready during his collegian career with Kansas. Should he stay alongside LeBron, we would expect to see bets on him to be top rookie (Wiggins @ 6/1 - Rookie of the Year).

It is possible the Cavs could trade Wiggins to bring in another seasoned pro. Complications may arise as the salary cap enters consideration; Kevin Love has been touted as a candidate for this scenario which would no doubt suit LeBron as he seeks a third crown. Whilst James is no doubt going to end up in the hall of fame, he is several titles away from the NBA elite ranks.

In the modern era, Michael Jordon won 6 titles with the Chicago Bulls and whilst James would never admit it, everybody wants to be like Mike.

Keith Larkin (11 July)

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