Free Agent Frenzy Moves MLB Futures Odds, With Lockout Creating Uncertainty

Betting analysts weigh in on which baseball signings had the most impact on action
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Major League Baseball’s free agency stove was sizzling last week when its pilot light was abruptly extinguished by a lockout.

Until a resolution is reached between owners and players, headliners like Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Story, and a bunch of ex-Cubs (Bryant, Rizzo, Schwarber, Soler) will remain without a team. But before things went dark, plenty of squads made splashy moves, some of which compelled sportsbooks to adjust their futures odds significantly.

The consensus among bookmakers and analysts is that, as Sam Panayotovich, a Boston-based sports betting analyst for FOX Sports, put it, “The Mets are the biggest mover. They were in the top 10 before they made their splashes, and now you can see them on the four line in some places. Consensus is Dodgers, Astros, Yankees, White Sox, then the Mets. The Mets were the only team in that five that wasn’t near the top” before free agent signings began.

The Mets gained speedy center fielder Starling Marte and future Hall-of-Famer Max Scherzer, the latter of whom helps form, on paper, baseball’s most formidable top-of-the-rotation combo with Jacob deGrom. But deGrom is prone to injury and Scherzer, 37, isn’t getting any younger. 

“If they’re both healthy — a big if — that would be the best 1-2 combination in baseball,” said John Murray, executive director of sportsbook operations for Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas. “If they got to the postseason, that’d be very difficult for anybody to overcome. I think everyone was surprised by how much [money] the Mets gave Scherzer at his age. But I can remember people criticizing the Nationals when they signed him many years ago, and that turned out to be one of the best signings in history. 

“Athletes are playing longer and longer, and I don’t want to bet against Max. The guy doesn’t get hurt. In retrospect, the Nationals wish they kept Scherzer and let [Stephen] Strasburg go.”

AL West also-rans look to contend

Another team that went all-in on free agency was the Rangers, who scooped up a pair of high-profile middle infielders in Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. Murray said he “was a little surprised” by the Semien signing, pointing out that the ex-Blue Jay is “on the other side of 30” and suggesting that Texas might be “buying high on him.”

But while consensus is that the Rangers will have a tough time contending for a division title in the hyper-competitive AL West, Panayotovich referred to their moves as “interesting.” He added, “I wouldn’t bet them to win the pennant, but if they’re in the hunt around July 1, they’re going to make some more trades. I would be curious to see what that ‘yes’ number is on them to make the playoffs on Opening Day. There’s a chance you might get 12/1 on them to make the postseason. I don’t like them to go far, but I don’t think it would be crazy if they made a push.”

Both Panayotovich and Robert Kowalski, sportsbook director for Baldini’s and ZenSports, love the Mariners’ signing of Robbie Ray, who won the Cy Young Award with Toronto last season. Kowalski responded to the move by cutting Seattle’s odds to win the World Series in half (from 50/1 to 25/1), while Panayotovich said of the Mariners, “They don’t spend money ever, and to give him $115 million (over five years) with a young core, I respect when teams like that go for it. I thought for sure he was going to New York or Los Angeles.”

Coastal bigwigs laying in the weeds?

Which brings us to the Yankees and Dodgers, two big-spending franchises that have been uncharacteristically quiet this offseason. While the Yankees’ roster remains relatively intact, the Dodgers have seen both Scherzer and Seager walk in free agency, with their longtime ace (Kershaw) and closer (Kenley Jansen) both unsigned.

“Who got punched in the gut? The Dodgers aren’t happy looking at their roster today as opposed to the start of November,” said Kowalski. “But no way in the world am I offering a discount on that team. They’re still the favorite (at 6/1) to win the World Series.

“Can you imagine the Dodgers picking up Correa and Freeman?” he speculated. “I’m gonna want to take them off the board immediately. I think one of them’s actually gonna sign there. I don’t think the Dodgers are gonna just sit there and accept what happened. Then again, the Dodgers do like to look at where they’re at and then come in midseason and trade for some big boppers.”

As for the Yankees, Kowalski has adjusted their odds to win it all from 10/1 to 15/1. But while Panayotovich thinks Correa will wind up staying put in Houston, former Vegas bookmaker and current sports betting podcast host Dave Sharapan said, “It feels like Correa is gonna end up in New York — not with the Mets, but the Yankees.”

Talking about another big name, Sharapan added, “I think Kris Bryant could end up in Philadelphia, which would be cool for the Vegas kids, him and [Bryce] Harper, linking up finally. I think that would be awesome. That NL East, the shift in power may go that way.”

For what it’s worth, Murray said, “I could see Bryant going to the Mets,” while Panayotovich conceded, “I have no fricking clue where Kris Bryant’s gonna go.”

How the lockout could impact odds

As for the lockout, Kowalski said, “I think we are about to miss games,” a prospect that could, in and of itself, have a tangible wagering impact as spring training draws nigh.

“The only thing it could impact is handle,” said Murray. “People might not want to come here and make big futures bets with the season in the balance.”

For his part, Panayotovich thinks a prolonged lockout stands to benefit a more established contender like the Dodgers, who took home a World Series title during the COVID-shortened 2020 season.

“I think it’s easier for the talented teams because it’s less opportunity for injury,” he said. “I think if it is a season shortened by a lockout, I think you’ll see people bet a lot of these favorites — the Dodgers, Yankees, Mets.”

As for Sharapan, he just counts himself lucky that he’s now at arm’s length from the likes of Kowalski and Murray. 

“This is probably reason number 928,036 that I’m glad I’m not in a risk room right now,” he said of the lockout. “You have to leave [futures odds] up, but you have to make all kinds of stipulations. You can make a choice to take them down, but then you run the risk of not getting bets you normally would. 

“A lot of people come [to Vegas] for New Year’s — people even bet the Pirates to win the division. But then, you put them up, you have to put ‘at least 150 games played,’ ‘the season has to start by May 1.’ You have to come up with a bunch of different situations, which then leads to more confusion.”

Photo: Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY

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