When I select futures, I’m looking for one of two things. I’m either looking for heavy underdogs with really great odds, who are vastly undervalued. Or I grab the top of the pack if I truly believe they are far better than the competition. In both scenarios, the odds will fall as the season progresses, so it’s best to lock them in as early as possible to maximize the payout. Also, it should be noted that when selecting the long-shot underdog, I’m not necessarily picking them to win it all. I just need the team to make it into the playoffs so that I can hedge against them in the first or second round.
As much as I love seeking out heavy dogs, the AL just doesn’t possess many of the large over-pays (to make it worthwhile) this year. Do I think the Angels have a better than 20-1 chance of making it to the World Series, or do I believe the Mariners can surprise everyone and claim the pennant at 50-1? As underrated as both of these teams are (as well the Tigers, yes the Tigers), I don’t think their current odds present enough value and thus are not worth taking a chance on.
There are two long shots, however, that I believe are possibly worth the gamble, but other than that, my favorite dark horses that I love to wager on (see previous NL Pennant article) aren’t really relevant this season in the AL, at least not yet.
When discussing the best bets to win the AL Pennant, other than the two heavy dogs, there is no avoiding the two most heavily favored teams. In my mind, it’s already down to a two-team race, but nothing is ever certain, and as we all know in baseball, anything can happen.
The Twins, Blue Jays, Astros, and Rays are all on the cusp, but their odds just aren’t great enough to make it worthwhile. Especially considering they each have their weaknesses. No team in the AL is perfect (well, two are pretty close), but even with their flaws, here are the best bets (with the current odds) to win the 2021 AL Pennant.
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New York Yankees +250
It all starts with the New York Yankees. This should be the year the boys in pinstripes finally make it back to the Fall Classic. Most AL teams have some holes or glaring weaknesses, whereas the Yankees on paper do not. Before they set their sites on the pennant, however, their main focus will be winning the division, and thankfully, the AL East is the weakest it’s been in quite some time.
The Rays lost Charlie Morton and Blake Snell and replaced them with Chris Archer and Michael Wacha.
The Red Sox still have no pitching.
Baltimore has one of the worst rotations in baseball.
And the Blue Jays, as exciting as their improved lineup may be, their pitching staff still isn’t excellent, nor is their bullpen.
Once they make it past their division, New York’s main competition for the pennant will likely come from:
The White Sox, who just lost Eloy Jimenez for possibly the season.
The Twins look more like a good team rather than a great team.
And the Astros, who are no longer in possession of team catalyst, George Springer. They also lost last year’s innings leader, Framber Valdez, to a hand injury that will keep him out for an undetermined amount of time.
In typical Yankees fashion, they did lose a few key players to injury themselves, but no one they can’t win without, nor are the injuries the season-ending type. Plus, the impressive depth they possess should be more than enough to cover the short-term losses.
The additions of Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and the return of Domingo German will add much-needed stability to the rotation led by one of the league’s best, Gerrit Cole. Rounding out the staff is Jordan Montgomery, a solid number five, who has only given up one run over 10 spring innings. Yankees former ace Luis Severino should be an option around the All-Star break. He has already progressed to throwing off a mound in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. And they even have top prospect Deivi Garcia waiting in the wings to step in if any of the aforementioned starters falter.
A few other additions to highlight are Jay Bruce as an adequate replacement for Luke Voit (knee surgery) in terms of power. He won’t put up league-leading home run numbers by any means, but the short porch in right field will play to his strengths, and he’ll be the lone lefty bat in the starting lineup. The signing of Darren O’Day brings a nice veteran presence to the bullpen. And the standout spring by journey-man reliever Lucas Luetge (10 IP, 18 K’s, two ER’s) brings a much-needed lefty arm to the pen.
As far as the lineup goes, the Bronx Bombers still boast the AL’s most potent lineup and even have a shot at the single-season home run record. With the amount of firepower the offense carries, the improved staff won’t have to consistently put up zeros to win (even though they are capable of doing so).
Injuries are always an issue for the Yankees, but with the amount of depth they have and the willingness to make any necessary moves, missing a few players throughout the season shouldn’t be a problem. As long as they have Gerrit Cole throwing every 5 days, they’re a heavy favorite to win the East and likely make it back to the WS. You can delay your wager if you wish, but as the season progresses and they continue to win, the odds could drop to LA Dodgers type of numbers (+175). This could cost you big dividends when it comes time to cash in.
The Yanks balanced attack should be more than enough to recapture another AL Pennant, and with much of the competition getting weaker, even as the heavy favorites, you have to like their current odds. You can find them at +275, which is well worth the gamble.
Chicago White Sox +450
Even with the loss of Eloy Jimenez, I still see the Sox (White, not Red) as the biggest threat to the Yankees. Not only is the lineup stacked from top to bottom, but the pitching staff is excellent as well. Already boasting one of the best outputs in the American League for 2020, the Pale Hose added innings-eater Lance Lynn and an absolutely dominant closer in Liam Hendriks.
The White Sox now harbor not only a great starting staff but, hands down, the best bullpen in the major leagues. When the Sox break out to an early lead, good luck to opposing teams trying to fight back in the late innings. If you total up the top six projected White Sox relievers’ numbers from last year, you get a 1.79 ERA, and 145 strikeouts over 115 innings pitched. Now add in Michael Kopech (who sat out last season and will start the year in the pen), whose 100 mph fastball will be even nastier over just an inning or two of work, and you’ve got the makings of an extremely dependable group.
The lineup will score a heavy dose of runs led by reigning AL MVP Jose Abreu and 2019 batting champion Tim Anderson. Chicago’s top prospect, hitting machine Andrew Vaughn is expected to make the Opening Day lineup and look for Yoan Moncada to bounce back from a down year caused by a lengthy bout with COVID. Second-year, 5 tool player Luis Robert will continue to dazzle in center field and will surely make strides at the plate. And while they will miss Jimenez’s bat, the addition of Vaughn and a bounce-back season from Moncada should be enough to make up for the lost production.
The AL Central will be much improved this season and won’t be full of the usual punching bags, but I believe the Sox can narrowly beat out the Twins for the division and then possibly go on to defeat the Yankees.
Can Tony La Russa bring back the magic to the South Side? Only time will tell, but at +450, it’s worth the gamble. Especially since that number is likely to drop as the wins in Chicago start pilling up.
Cleveland Indians +2000
I don’t love Cleveland this year, but any club that perennially produces top-of-the-line starting pitching will always have a chance at earning a wildcard birth.
The Indians finished 2020 one game out of first place and ended up with a 35-25 record. Yes, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, Carlos Santana, and Brad Hand are all gone, but the organization should be well equipped to make up for the losses. The additions of Eddie Rosario, Andres Gimenez, Amed Rosario, Josh Naylor, Emmanuel Clase, a full season from Triston McKenzie, and Zach Plesac should all help pick up the slack. They also added Austin Hedges from the Padres to form a formidable defensive duo at catcher, combining with two-time gold glove winner Roberto Perez.
And it’s not like the players they lost performed at any astronomical level last year. As great as he is, Lindor had an OPS of .750 and a 102 OPS+, which is right around league average. The 34-year-old Santana had an awful year in his return to Cleveland, batting under .200 while slugging only .350. Hand’s and Carrasco’s results were great, but Hand’s velo was down for a third year in a row, averaging just over 91 mph on his fastball, and has looked lousy in Washington’s camp so far. And Carrasco (who’s already injured) walks a few too many batters and doesn’t pitch that deep into games anymore. Yes, this is nitpicking against some great players, but it’s something worth exploring before writing off Cleveland’s updated roster.
If they won 58 percent of their games last season with those performances, then there’s no reason they can’t do it again with their core still intact and new replacements. Eddie Rosario adds a much-needed thump to the middle of the lineup and excels at hitting with runners on base. Gimenez will add speed, a fantastic glove, and a steady bat to the top or bottom of the lineup. Clase was traded for Corey Kluber straight up in 2019 (illustrating how good he is) but missed the last season due to injury. He could be a nice late innings replacement for Hand, combining with last year’s stand-out James Karinchak and steady setup-man Nick Wittgren.
The rotation is fantastic, as always led by reigning Cy Young award winner Shane Bieber, 2020 breakout star Zach Plesac, the electric Triston McKenzie, and steady innings-eater Aaron Civale who’s strikeout to walk ratio last year was 4.31. Filling out the rotation, the Tribe will look to spring standout Logan Allen, who fired 14 innings while allowing only one run and striking out 18. Cal Quantrill can also fill in as a decent starter who throws a hard-breaking sinker and is capable of an ERA under four.
The Indians also house some quality arms in the minor league system led by the 6’6” lefty Scott Moss. Over 102 minor league innings in 2019 (combining Double-A and Triple-A), Moss produced a 3.44 ERA, with 123 K’s. He was included in the Trevor Bauer trade and could be the next man up, continuing the trend of dominant rookie pitchers in Cleveland. They also have some nice outfielder prospects waiting for the call, including the powerful Nolan Jones, who ranks near the top 50 prospects overall and currently plays the infield corners, but projects more as a right fielder, a position the team desperately needs.
Even though they were thought of as sellers in the off-season, the Indians roster still boasts some of the American League’s best-starting arms. They can match up with nearly anyone because of it, and while they did suffer some tough losses in the player personnel department, they did counter with a few very underrated moves. Throw in bounce-back seasons from players like Franmil Reyes and Cesar Hernandez (who’ve both had great Springs), and the Indians could surprise and contend in the stacked AL Central.
Cleveland shouldn’t fall too far from last year’s success, and if the new guys can produce and the pitching can continue its winning ways, 20-1 is a solid risk worth taking. Grab it now and hedge against them when they face off against the Yankees or White Sox in the postseason.
Kansas City Royals +5000
The Royals at 50-1 are an obvious long shot, but you won’t be able to get them at this great of odds once the season is underway. The organization has already shown its willingness to spend on free agents and make any necessary trades they deem fit, which should carry out throughout the season.
KC added Carlos Santana, who not only gets on base a ton but is only 2 years removed from a .911 OPS and is as durable as they come (yes, he was awful last year, but a bad two months isn’t enough to write him off). They surprisingly signed Mike Minor, who was also an All-Star in 2019 and struck out 200 batters. Andrew Benintendi was added, who could also heavily contribute to the overhauled lineup if he can get back on track. Rounding out the additions are Hanser Alberto, a fly-under-the-radar type who can hit .300 and never strikes out. And Michael A. Taylor who’s not only a great defender but has shown flashes of greatness with his combination of power and quickness.
The Royals quietly boast a well-balanced core of returning regulars as well. Whit Merrifield, Jorge Soler, Salvador Perez, Hunter Dozier, and the electric Adalberto Mondesi round out the starting nine. The lineup equally consists of strength and speed, and there isn’t an easy out among them.
Their farm system is deep as well, brimming with near major league talent ranging from uber-prospect Bobby Witt Jr., who many have picked to win rookie of the year this season, to a hand full of power pitchers taken in the first round of the 2018 draft.
The bullpen has a few guys who can touch 100 and strike out hitters in bunches. The starting staff includes solid, underrated arms such as Brad Keller (2.47 ERA last season), 2018 first-round pick Brady Singer who, after only 26 games played in the minor leagues, produced a 1.116 WHIP (walks + hits/inning) over 12 starts last year. The Royals’ longest-tenured hurler in Danny Duffy will return for another year and will be joined by the aforementioned Minor. Jakob Junis is also a possibility for the staff who has been sent down to start the season but more than earned a spot after a productive spring. An overhaul to his pitching arsenal resulted in only two batters reaching base over seven innings of work while he struck out 10.
The front office set a precedent early in the offseason as buyers and the winning desire and energy seem to have funneled down to the players. Observing them this spring, the reenergized group reminded me of the Padres last season. The players just seem to be having fun, and when players are loose and relaxed, good results tend to follow. There’s winning energy emanating from the club so far, and as little as Spring numbers typically mean, the Royals have been dominating all month. They lead the Cactus League with a 16-8 record, and not only has the pitching been stellar, but the bats have been raking as well. Through March 29th, here are the starting 9’s OPS’:
(An average OPS is about .740)
These boys have been bringing their “A-game,” and it’s plain to see for anyone who’s paying attention. The bats are alive, and the pitching is there as well. If they can get a full year out of Mondesi, Dozier, and Perez, the Royals, dare I say, actually have a good chance at earning a wild card.
If they can hover above .500, look for the Royals to be buyers near the trade deadline, helping them push for a playoff berth. They’re obviously no shoo-in to make it, but at 50-1, there isn’t much to lose. Throwdown a few bucks on Kansas City and proudly cash in when you bet against them in the Wild Card or divisional round if they somehow make it in.
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Austin Lowell is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Austin, check out his archive.