Money can buy happiness, at least temporarily. The Los Angeles Dodgers handed Clayton Kershaw the richest deal for a pitcher in baseball history, and a big bankroll has turned the odds in their favor.
But will the Hollywood hype result in a blockbuster ending?
The Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, the defending National League champions, are 6-1 co-favorites to win the World Series, according to the LVH sports book, where the Dodgers’ regular-season win total of 94 is the highest on the board.
“If the Dodgers blow the division with a $240 million payroll, it would be one of the all-time disasters,” said Dave Cokin, a Las Vegas handicapper and ESPN Radio host.
The Associated Press reported the Dodgers’ payroll to be $235 million. But who’s going to quibble over a measly $5 million?
Kershaw, 16-9 with a 1.83 ERA and 232 strikeouts last year, signed a seven-year, $215 million contract extension in January. Following him in the rotation is the steady Zack Greinke.
The Dodgers opened the season March 22 by sweeping two games from the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia. Kershaw returned from the trip with a sore back, which might be only a minor issue.
A bigger potential problem is the erratic on- and off-field antics of immature young star Yasiel Puig. Another outfielder, Matt Kemp, is returning from offseason operations on his left ankle and left shoulder.
So while the Dodgers, who finished 92-70 last season, are loaded, they are not quite a lock.
“Puig seems like a wild card. The Kershaw situation is concerning,” LVH assistant sports book manager Ed Salmons said. “It would be something internal that would beat the Dodgers, not another team in the division.”
Los Angeles is a minus-325 favorite to win the NL West. The best managers in the division are San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy and San Diego’s Bud Black, who are guiding improved teams after each finished 76-86.
“I like the Padres. That would be my dark horse,” Salmons said. “I like their pitching, their bullpen is solid, and their lineup is better. The Padres, if everything went right, would have a chance to contend. But a lot of things would have to go wrong with the Dodgers.”
■ NL CENTRAL: A year after winning 97 games and losing the World Series to Boston in six games, the Cardinals could be the best team in baseball. St. Louis lost two key pieces — outfielder Carlos Beltran (New York Yankees) and third baseman David Freese (Los Angeles Angels) — but Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha are three rock-solid starting pitchers.
Pittsburgh, off a breakthrough 94-68 season, is expected to take some steps back with a win total of 83½.
“This could be the big runaway in the NL,” Cokin said. “The Cardinals are way better than the rest of the division.”
■ NL EAST: Bryce Harper, a teen phenom in Las Vegas and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, hit at least 20 home runs in each of his first two seasons in the majors. He missed 44 games last season with injuries, and the Washington Nationals underachieved.
But the Nationals still won 86 games and posted the top winning percentage in baseball in August and September. Matt Williams, a former UNLV star, takes over as manager of a team with few weaknesses.
Look for Washington to sneak over its win total of 90 and take down Atlanta in the division.
“There’s a lot of support for the Nationals,” said Salmons, who called the Miami Marlins “dramatically improved.”
■ AL WEST: The American League team in Los Angeles was getting most of the hype at this time a year ago. But sluggers Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton slumped, the pitching staff fell apart, and a team oddsmakers pegged to win 92 games spiraled into a 78-84 disappointment.
“I like the Angels a lot this year. It seems like they are a forgotten team, for whatever reason,” said Salmons, who set the Angels’ win total at 87½. “Oakland wins 90 games every year. I don’t know how they do it, and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt.”
Seattle (Robinson Cano) and Texas (Prince Fielder) picked up offensive firepower. Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who batted .323 with 27 home runs last season, still is the brightest star in the division. But he needs more help.
“I think the team that moves up this year is the Angels,” Cokin said. “Hamilton looks great. This guy is a superstar if he’s healthy and ready to play. Pujols figures to have a better season. I think the Angels are going to win the division.”
■ AL CENTRAL: Miguel Cabrera leads the Detroit Tigers, at 7-1 odds to win the World Series and minus-250 favorites in the division. Kansas City, Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox should float around .500.
“I don’t think the Tigers can lose the division,” Cokin said. “The Twins actually could be the worst team in baseball.”
■ AL EAST: There is no doubt this is the best division in baseball. Boston won 97 games, followed by Tampa Bay at 92. Baltimore and the Yankees each finished 85-77.
“The team that has gotten by far the most support is the Orioles,” Salmons said. “The Yankees will be better than most people think.”
The Yankees — minus free-agent second baseman Cano, suspended third baseman Alex Rodriguez and retired closer Mariano Rivera — are showing a new look. Another old star, shortstop Derek Jeter, is getting his farewell tour. New York’s regular-season win total is 86.
“The Rays are probably the team to beat in the division,” Cokin said. “I still think the Yankees are a .500 team. There are too many holes there, and the Jeter thing could be a distraction.”
In a Hollywood ending, Jeter would go out on top. But he might have to settle for 80-something wins and a lot of goodbye hype.
Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.