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Nationals are well armed to win it all

A handful of aces is always a good feeling, and that’s what the Washington Nationals are holding after signing Max Scherzer to a big deal. Is it the top starting rotation in baseball?

“It’s not even close,” said Ed Salmons, sports book manager at the Westgate Las Vegas. “Obviously, the Nationals’ pitching is the best in the game.”

Scherzer, who ditched Detroit for a $210 million, seven-year contract, is followed to the mound by Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez.

Backed by the strongest staff in the majors, an empowered Bryce Harper predicted a World Series championship for Washington, the favorite at 5-1 odds and the team with the highest regular-season win total on the board at 94.

In a sense, it’s Las Vegas’ team. Matt Williams, a former UNLV star, enters his second year as manager. Harper, a 22-year-old outfielder from Las Vegas High and College of Southern Nevada, appears primed for a breakout year.

The No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, Harper has 55 career home runs. A thumb injury limited him to 100 games and quieted the hype last year. But when the San Francisco Giants knocked the Nationals out of the playoffs, Harper was the team’s major power source.

It all looks great now, but April is too soon to plan a parade. Washington went 96-66 last year before an awful October.

“It’s going to be a great regular-season team, but in the playoffs we’ll see what happens,” Salmons said. “For two years, the Nationals have been a complete failure in the playoffs.”

Washington’s starters led the majors with a 3.04 ERA, and Scherzer should only help. The right-hander finished 18-5 for the Tigers, after going 21-3 the previous year.

The Nationals are minus-500 favorites to win the National League East, ahead of Miami and the New York Mets. The Marlins are led by Giancarlo Stanton, the majors’ top home run threat. The Mets’ ace, Matt Harvey, is making a comeback from Tommy John surgery — the same issue that is sidelining promising young starter Zack Wheeler this season.

“If he’s healthy, Harvey is as good as any pitcher in baseball,” Salmons said. “But losing Wheeler is a big deal. I think the Mets are overrated.”

■ NL CENTRAL: Betting win totals, Salmons said, is “a public thing to do.” The public accounts for about 75 percent of the action. The Chicago Cubs, with a win total of 82½, are as public as it gets.

“There is so much two-way money on the Cubs, it’s crazy,” Salmons said. “Essentially, it’s the wiseguys versus the public.”

After a 73-89 finish, the Cubs have a new manager, Joe Maddon, a new No. 1 starter, lefty Jon Lester, and an exciting crop of prospects.

“The Cubs will be improved, but as far as 83 wins, I don’t know. I would be surprised if they went over,” Salmons said. “I like Maddon a lot, and Lester is definitely going to help the rotation. The Cubs can have a good year, win 80 games and make progress.”

The Cardinals, off a 90-win season, are the division favorites at 6-5 odds, followed by Pittsburgh (5-2) and the Cubs (3-1). The Pirates are weaker than a year ago. The public’s fascination over the Cubs is probably one year premature.

■ NL WEST: Madison Bumgarner carried the Giants to the World Series title, but the rotation behind the country-strong lefty now is made up mostly of old bums. On top of that, outfielder Hunter Pence, the sparkplug of the lineup, is injured, and third baseman Pablo Sandoval is in Boston.

“I’m big-time down on the Giants,” Salmons said. “The starting pitching behind Bumgarner is just not very good. If he goes down, the Giants will lose 100 games.”

The Dodgers, division favorites at 4-11 odds, feature two of the majors’ elite starters (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke), a new middle infield and an outfield minus Matt Kemp.

San Diego’s additions include Kemp, outfielder Wil Myers from Tampa Bay and starter James Shields from Kansas City. The Padres have a quality rotation, and legitimately high expectations.

“The Padres are very intriguing. I like their starting pitching, but the bullpen is a question mark,” Salmons said. “No one can go to San Diego and hit the ball. I guess we’ll find out. I think the Padres can be the only team that can challenge the Dodgers.”

■ AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST: Derek Jeter is gone in New York. Maddon is gone in Tampa Bay. But hope has returned in Boston. The Red Sox, the division favorites, won 71 games last year.

“To me, this is the worst division in baseball, but there are no real bad teams in here,” Salmons said. “You’ve got four teams that people can argue should be the favorite. There is nothing about the Red Sox starting pitching that leads me to believe they are going to be a good team.”

Baltimore (96-66) and the Yankees (84-78) led the division, but both teams are a mystery. Toronto is a threat because of its offense. The Orioles might be the best bet because of their young pitchers and Buck Showalter, one of the best managers in baseball. What will the Yankees get from ace Masahiro Tanaka and veteran hitters Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira? This division might be bad, but it will be good to watch.

■ AL CENTRAL: Look for an uprising from the Cleveland Indians, who should surpass their win total of 84½. The pitching is there, and Terry Francona can put the pieces together better than most managers.

“I think the Tigers are going to be a .500 team. It’s not hard to see them turning bad quickly,” Salmons said. “How can you take away Scherzer and the team be as good? I like Cleveland to win the division.”

Salmons said he’s “down” on Kansas City, the defending AL champion, because of Shields’ departure and the absence of power in the lineup. Meanwhile, things are looking up in Chicago, as he called the White Sox “dramatically improved.”

■ AL WEST: Seattle is the hot team with the sharp bettors. Salmons is not sold, saying he goes “back and forth” on the Mariners, who put “King” Felix Hernandez at the top of a solid rotation and added Nelson Cruz to protect Robinson Cano in the lineup.

It’s doubtful the Mike Trout-led Angels, off a 98-win year, will repeat as best in the West.

“The team that’s always the hardest to predict is Oakland,” Salmons said. “The Angels, on paper, definitely look down a notch or two from last year. The more I think about it, I think Oakland is going to win the division.”

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.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.

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