Las Vegas Not Ready To Discount Braves. Yet

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(This blog post originally appeared in Forbes)

Evangelist Billy Graham said it. Athletes say it. Coaches say it. You can bet the bookies say it.

“The best ability is availability.”

And, day-to-day this baseball season, we just don’t know who will be available.

Welcome to the MLB Black Box season, where the Covid-19 pandemic is writing lineups and the face of the Braves—Freddie Freeman—is already a scratch.

What does Vegas say about the Braves? You know by now it is already a mean season for the Braves, which has allowed teams like the Reds—the Reds!—to close a gap.

The team played its first scrimmage Wednesday and Freeman, the team’s essence and second-best hitter, is sidelined with virus symptoms. The season is expected to start July 24 and, for his family’s sake, who could blame Freeman for sitting out 2020? Star reliever Will Smith has also tested positive and, considering the Atlanta rotation does not rank among the top 10 in baseball, any ding to the Atlanta pen is noteworthy.

Nick Markakis, another veteran, decided he is not going to play in 2020. Former All-Star pitcher Felix Hernandez, who was bidding to become the Braves’ fifth starter, waved a white flag and will sit out. It may be the end of their careers for Markakis, 36, and King Felix, 34.

Legendary Las Vegas bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, the senior linemaker at South Point, asked me to comfort Braves fans. It’s early, so breathe, and maybe discount the Braves 1 1/2 games in this short season without Freeman, if he decides to sit out, Vaccaro said. (Freeman’s Wins Above Replacement Value in 2019 was 4.0 while playing hurt, according to Baseball Reference).

“Nobody is running to the counter to bet against the Braves, no crazy movement,” Jimmy said because a) Freeman may come back b) Smith may be fine c) unfortunately, there will be more attrition with other teams.

The Braves, he said, were 2-to-1 to win the division and Vegas got some money on the division race and then, pop, Freeman, then Smith, then Markakis.

Vaccaro said the action right now, besides UFC and Dana White, are the single props, like will any team win 41 1/2 games (which has now dropped to 39 1/2), or the first Astro hit by a pitch (Alex Bregman). The rest? Sit tight for the next two weeks.

“You cannot overthink these things, my friend,” Vaccaro said. “You let the people drive it, you let the money drive it.”

The bookmakers still have the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees a good distance ahead of the pack as favorites to win the World Series. The Braves led the second tier, but that was a week ago. The Reds are suddenly in the company of the Braves. The Rays are pushing past the Braves to lead the second tier teams.

Atlanta’s edge was its everyday lineup, and now that is seriously dinged with Freeman out.

So, do you trust the Braves?

When somebody asks you a question like this you can bet the answer is usually … no.

Sure, the Braves have won back-to-back division championships. Ronald Acuna, Jr. is a superstar. Ozzie Albies will be an All-Star. I think Dansby Swanson is finally ready to play like that No. 1 pick, which means offense to go with defense. The coaching staff is a rock, even though first base coach Eric Young is sidelined for the season.

But …

Freeman is gone. Smith is out for now. The outfield lost Markakis, who would have platooned, but was still valuable.

The Braves, once again, refused to spend long term on a starting pitcher in the offseason. They are riding upside of young hurlers again, as well as trying to coax another year out of Cole Hamels.

Mike Soroka, 22, is an ace, but how fit is Hamels? Can Max Fried stay on top of that curveball? And what can you expect from Folty, the enigmatic right-hander Mike Foltynewicz? Felix Hernandez was pure joy to watch in spring training … and then he wasn’t.

The fact is Atlanta’s starting pitching lags behind Washington and the Mets in the NL East and at least six other teams overall. The Braves’ bullpen is still a strength without Smith, but bullpens sag when they are asked day after day to be stout for four innings. How many times can you confidently say, “Hey, all we need to do is get into the other team’s pen.”

So, welcome to the Black Box Season 2020. Questions abound.

Some of these young players—and the Braves have their share of young players— thrive on a crowd’s adrenaline. But there will be more echos than cheers. Does the lack of juice from the throng rob them of a step, the willingness to dive?

Might Folty, who gets famously amped up on the hill, find the mood better? We just don’t know.

In professional sports the name on the back of the jersey is always the bigger draw for fans. Not this season. You are going to be more emotionally invested in the name on the front because, unfortunately, the name on the back might as well be on eraser board.

Vaccaro says Vegas needs players at the counter to spend money to get the sport some traction before everyone turns away to watch Tom Brady in Tampa, but which baseball stars are going to stay out of the sick bay? Pardon us Jimmy if we just hang tight to our dough a little longer, unless of course we come up with that needed new name for the Indians that is worth a wager.

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