American League West Preview

American League West Preview

AL West Preview
By Matt Zylbert
VegasInsider.com

Texas Rangers

Over the past handful of seasons, it’s probable that no team has been on more of a rollercoaster than the Rangers. After consecutive unsuccessful World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011, the latter of which seeing them come literally one strike away from a championship two different times, Texas has found themselves on the outside looking in, thanks to disastrous September performances that climaxed in losses in the AL wild card play-in game in each of the past two seasons. Thus, big changes were made in the offseason, like dealing away the club’s longtime second baseman Ian Kinsler for some heavy lumber in Prince Fielder, who should bounce back from a relatively quiet season.

The Rangers didn’t stop there, spending significant dollars on Shin-Soo Choo to be the new lead-off hitter, and considering his remarkably high on-base percentage, that could be a fantastic move pairing him with Elvis Andrus at the top of the order, setting the table for the likes of Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Alex Rios, and Mitch Moreland. In addition, the Rangers are excited to see what longtime top prospect Jurickson Profar can do in his first full big-league season, while new catcher J.P. Arencibia may end up proving to be a considerable presence in Arlington.

Contrary to their old way of doing things, the Rangers have developed some excellent pitching in recent years. One of their core starters, however, Derek Holland, will be out for an extensive period of time - perhaps through the all-star break - so it will be critical that the other members of this much-improved rotation step up in his absence. That should be no problem for Yu Darvish, who has established himself as one of the better aces in the league since arriving to Texas a couple of years ago. Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez can also help ease the void, having both enjoyed success to begin their big-league careers. But can they get consistency from the back-end of the staff?

Matt Harrison will come back at some point, after missing most of 2013, and if he returns to form, that’s a huge plus. Colby Lewis and Tommy Hanson are two other intriguing options coming back from injury, each having had success in the past. Despite losing Joe Nathan, the bullpen should still be in good shape, boasting the return of former closer Neftali Feliz, who missed most of last season following Tommy John surgery, not to mention Joakim Soria, another who went under the knife and was absent most of the previous campaign as well. With other constants like Tanner Scheppers, Neal Cotts, and Jason Frasor, the Rangers will have no problem securing leads. Being in the wild AL West, though, it will certainly be another rigorous journey trying to get back to the top of the mountain.

Predicted Record: 89-73

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

When you think of the extremely disappointing teams from 2013, there’s no question the Angels are somewhere at the very top of the list, not even being able to finish at the .500-mark in a year loaded with sky-high expectations. After all, this is a franchise that was picked by most to win the division, if not more, after adding Josh Hamilton in the prior offseason, but instead, the addition of the superstar slugger ended up flopping big-time, as did mostly everything else associated with this club. Not only did Hambone underachieve greatly, but so did Albert Pujols, once previously the general consensus best player in baseball, who had an injury-riddled campaign that led to the lowest production of his storied career.

It wasn’t all a nightmare, though, as the future of the franchise, Mike Trout, picked up right where he left off from his historic 2012 to put up just-as-eye-opening numbers a season ago, while continuing to solidify his standing as one of the brightest young stars in all of baseball. The Angels dealt away another main power source this offseason, Mark Trumbo, but did manage to add Raul Ibanez and David Freese, the latter being a notable upgrade for them at third base. The offense still has potential to be explosive on a regular basis, but that will largely hinge on whether or not Pujols and Hamilton can return to old form. If they do, there’s no doubt the Angels can compete offensively with the best of them.

The significant injuries the Angels endured last year also struck their pitching staff, most notably losing starting ace Jered Weaver for an extended period of time as they struggled mightily without him throughout the first half of the season. Weaver did come back, though, and proceeded to post a statline on par with his usual solid numbers, indicating that he, along with fellow established arm C.J. Wilson, can still push this rotation to a potential playoff berth. The Trumbo deal netted them two potential up-and-coming starting pitchers for the back-end of it, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, while Garrett Richards will look to continue his fine contributions from a season ago as he enters his first full year as a starter.

In the meantime, the bullpen was kept mostly the same, other than the underrated addition of set-up man Joe Smith, and still has Ernesto Frieri serving as the closer, which is certainly a positive. Again, though, the fate of the Angels will depend on if they can stay healthy and if their stars can get back on track. If those items go according to plan, there’s no reason to doubt this roster.

Predicted Record: 87-75

Seattle Mariners

Normally, clubs entering a campaign with a streak of six consecutive losing seasons don’t figure to draw much attention as a potential contender, but after the offseason the Mariners just had, they’re definitely an exception to the aforementioned sentiment. While it’s been awhile since Seattle last tasted the playoffs - 13 years, to be exact - they made some serious noise over these past few months, arguably more than any other team in baseball, attaining the gem of the free agent class, that obviously being Robinson Cano. The superstar second baseman leaves New York after nine outstanding seasons and will be “the guy” in Seattle moving forward.

That acquisition alone would usually merit an impactful offseason by itself but the Mariners didn’t stop there, also adding two more established bats in Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. Hart missed all of last year but was always an intimidating presence in Milwaukee prior, while Morrison can be a pretty dynamic player in his own right. Those names, combined with the young core already in place - Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and the intriguing Mike Zunino - should easily give Seattle its best lineup in a decade. New manager Lloyd McClendon has a lot of pieces to work with.

The Mariners didn’t make any major moves to their starting rotation, but when you look up and down this immensely talented group, you’ll see why no changes were necessary. Of course, it all begins with former AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the game. Hisashi Iwakuma resides right behind him, and was actually in Cy Young contention with the terrific numbers he posted a season ago. It doesn’t even stop there, as after them, Seattle boasts two of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, that being Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. If you watched what both of those hurlers did in the second half of last season in their first big-league stints, you’d see why they’re so highly coveted and on the fast track to success.

The M’s did make one alteration to their bullpen, meanwhile, adding the experienced Fernando Rodney to be their new closer. That means Danny Farquhar will move into a set-up role, after the fabulous job he did closing games a season ago, and behind him are other talented arms in Charlie Furbush, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Stephen Pryor. There’s no question the Mariners will be competitive for the first time in several years, but in this wild AL West division, if they want a playoff berth, they’ll truly have to earn it by surpassing some of the league’s best.

Predicted Record: 84-78

Oakland Athletics

Over the past couple of years, the Athletics have been riding quite a wave of success, winning consecutive division titles in the ultra-competitive AL West. However, it would end up being all for naught, as the ensuing postseason run would conclude in identical fashion: losing to the Detroit Tigers in the first round in the maximum five games. Even so, there’s a lot of optimism surrounding this bunch, as there should be, since it has been pretty much this exact group that turned things around in Oakland two years ago after five straight seasons mired in obscurity. A lot of that has to do with the pitching, and the same should hold true for 2014. Sonny Gray, of course, was one of the break-out stars of last postseason, and that’s just a hint of what’s to come from this very promising right-hander over the next several seasons.

The Athletics are hoping his journey mirrors that of ace Jarrod Parker, who has marveled thus far through his first two campaigns. Despite losing Bartolo Colon through free agency, Oakland added Scott Kazmir, coming off his own renaissance season in Cleveland, and with the likes of A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, and Tommy Milone following suit, this is quite a pitching staff with a lot of depth. The same can be said for the bullpen, as even with former closer Grant Balfour departing, they still have a plethora of quality arms in Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and the newly-acquired Luke Gregerson, all seeking to get the ball to Balfour’s replacement, Jim Johnson, in the ninth.

When it comes to their offense, the A’s have nice, dependable nucleus consisting of Yoenis Cespedes and Coco Crisp, both being the main sparks for this lineup. Crisp has become a huge fan favorite during his time in Oakland at the top of the batting order, while Cespedes has developed into a top legitimate run-producer. However, it was the previously unknown Josh Donaldson who emerged as the club’s best offensive player a year ago, posting such an impressive season that he even finished in the top five in the American League MVP voting. Even if he regresses, which a lot of people are predicting, there’s still Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, and Jed Lowrie, all nice players capable of driving in runs while recording respectable batting averages. Furthermore, the club could get a real boost this season from youngster Nate Freiman, who has interesting power potential.

Can these Athletics make it a three-peat in the AL West? This year’s roster is certainly on par with the previous two that have division titles attached to their team, but with arguably all of their rivals improved this season, 2014 might see them return to the middle of the pack.

Predicted Record: 79-83

Houston Astros

It’s been a pretty dismal stretch for the Astros, having registered three consecutive 100-loss seasons entering 2014, all of which resonating as the only such seasons in the 52-year history of the franchise. But on the bright side, there actually is light at the end of the tunnel - not just because of the slew of high draft picks and the stacked farm system Houston has built up over these past few years - but also due to the talent that’s at the major league level right now. With pitching, the Astros saw the debuts of two really intriguing starters in the second half of last season, Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer, both of whom impressed considerably and figure to make an impact in their first full campaigns. Scott Feldman was lured over via free agency, and after the very impressive year he enjoyed in his first action away from the Rangers, he’s someone capable that can definitely assist in the effort of getting these Astros back up to respectability.

Additionally, Brad Peacock exhibited some potential in the second half of last season and might settle in as an acceptable mid-rotation option. For Houston to make any sort of push, though, they’ll certainly need a better bullpen, which ranked dead-last in all of baseball a year ago, but to their credit, Houston addressed this need by adding three veteran arms in Jesse Crain, Matt Albers, and Chad Qualls, one of which will get the first crack at closing games.

Offensively, the Astros flashed some promise in their first go-around in the AL, and will get a boost in 2014 with the addition of Dexter Fowler, one of the more underappreciated lead-off men in all of baseball. His presence also takes some pressure off Jose Altuve, one of the cornerstone players of the franchise, and a potential combo of those two at the top of the lineup actually might be one of the better pairings in the American League. The problem is, who will drive those guys in when they get on base and cause some havoc?

Jason Castro was the Astros’ lone all-star last year and is a very nice contributor behind the plate, but will need to stay healthy for the first time in his career if this team has any shot of escaping the AL West cellar. Chris Carter displayed limitless potential in the power department, but needs to strike out a lot less if he wants to be an upper echelon slugger. And Matt Dominguez, who was second on the team in homeruns and runs batted in last year, is really more of a role-player. If they were still in the NL Central, the Astros would have a lot more potential for improvement, but their current home features way too much talent to make any sort of run. However, they are absolutely getting much closer.

Predicted Record: 65-97

Final Say on the AL West: The AL West this year will be as competitive as it has ever been, with four of the five teams realistically having a legitimate chance of winning the division. Even the Astros will be at their best - certainly much better than their three previous 100-loss seasons - and could be an interesting spoiler in the second half, especially with how surprisingly great their starting pitching was in the second half of last year. The Rangers and Athletics have battled it out for first in each of the past two years so it should be obvious that they’ll both be factors, while it’s do-or-die time for the Angels and Mariners. Both should take serious strides forward, as Seattle’s blend of pitching is just too good to ignore, while having an improved lineup, which was always their major weakness in recent years. In fact, they were usually last in the AL in runs scored over the past handful of seasons, so having their best lineup can finally allow them to realize the potential set forward by their incredibly talented pitching rotation. Los Angeles should absolutely be better than last season’s disappointment, now that the pressure will be severely lessened, as they did look like they were finally putting it together with a much-improved second half. It’s also a telling sign that the three favorites to win the division are all +200 or lower, which really doesn’t even make it worth it. Seattle at +450 might have the best value, given the enormous strides they made this offseason, and as emphasized, their starting pitching is just remarkable.

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Re: American League West Preview

American League West Preview
By Steve Merril
Covers.com

The AL West is an arms race involving excellent pitching from the three main contenders: Angels, Rangers and Athletics. Seattle might also get in the mix after their off-season spending spree, while the Astros are destined for last place once again.

Houston Astros (2013: 51-111, -2582 units, 80-76-6 over/under)

Division odds: 75/1
Season win total: 62.5

Why bet the Astros: It is hard to find a reason to back the worst team in baseball, however you will get a nice underdog price with them in most games. Jose Altuve is an up and coming star in this league. They also got solid pitching from Jarred Cosart, Paul Clemens, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock in the second half of last season as those four pitchers combined for a 2.73 ERA after the All-Star break.

Why not bet the Astros: Their bullpen is a mess. They have Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Jesse Crain and several other inexperienced youngsters. The three veterans of the group haven't exactly been stellar with their previous teams, so it is doubtful they will fix Houston's problems. The offensive lineup is unproven and may get overwhelmed by the incredibly strong pitching in this division.

Season win total pick:  Under 62.5

Los Angeles Angels (2013: 78-84, -2098 units, 88-68-6 over/under)

Division odds: 7/4
Season win total: 87

Why bet the Angels: Mike Trout and Albert Pujols form an incredible duo in the lineup, plus Josh Hamilton is also capable of having a big season after struggling last year. Raul Ibanez and David Freese are solid additions that further strengthen the batting order. Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson are a great 1-2 punch in the pitching rotation, while Ernesto Frieri was a pleasant surprise at closer last season.

Why not bet the Angels: Josh Hamilton might not rebound after struggling last year and despite strength at the top of the rotation, the Angels' starting pitchers have still posted a mediocre 4.12 ERA the past two years and there is question about the back end of the rotation. Raul Ibanez will turn 42 in June, so Father Time might eventually catch up to him. This team also lacks depth on the bench, so injuries could become a factor.

Season win total pick:  Under 87

Oakland Athletics (2013: 96-66, +1851 units, 84-74-4 over/under)

Division odds: 8/5
Season win total: 88.5

Why bet the Athletics: Pitching is once again a strength with Sonny Gray and Jarrod Parker leading the way, while AJ Griffin and Dan Straily showed promise last year. Jim Johnson has been a stabilizing force as the closer and the bullpen is extremely deep with Luke Gregorson, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook. The offensive lineup had nice balance last year with four different players hitting at least 22 home runs.

Why not bet the Athletics: Oakland's pitching doesn't have a pedigree. Most of the starters have not been in the league long and may find it hard to match previous success once the opposing hitters get a book on them. The bats in the lineup lack consistency and could find trouble scoring runs at times. The bench is thin as pinch hitters batted only .145 last year, which was the worst mark in the American League.

Season win total pick:  Under 88.5

Seattle Mariners (2013: 71-91, -1622 units, 82-72-8 over/under)

Division odds: 12/1
Season win total: 81.5

Why bet Seattle: Felix Hernandez is one of the best pitchers in baseball and has posted a 3.06 ERA or better in four of the past five years. Hisashi Iwakuma showed promise and finished the season in excellent form, allowing only three earned runs in his final five starts. Seattle added Robinson Cano, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison to the batting order which should help the team score more runs.

Why not bet Seattle: The rest of the lineup is still weak and Cano might regress after getting his big payday. The Mariners are relying on youth in Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino, while injuries have hurt the rotation with Danny Hultzen out for the year and Taijuan Walker already hurting. The bullpen has some hard throwing talent, but it is still unproven. The team needs to find a consistent closer.

Season win total pick:  Under 81.5

Texas Rangers (2013: 91-72, -461, 64-90-9 over/under)

Division odds: 9/4
Season win total: 87

Why bet Texas: This team has the best combination of hitting and pitching in the division. The addition of Prince Fielder helps go along with Adrian Beltre in the middle of the lineup. Jurickson Profar will finally get regular playing time which will help him produce consistent results. Yu Darvish was the runner up last year for the Cy Young award and he has a great group of pitchers backing him up. Neftali Feliz is back as a reliever where he belongs, while Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers and Neal Cotts are viable arms in the bullpen as well.

Why not bet Texas: The lineup relies heavily on home runs which can lead to scoring slumps at times. Derek Holland has been inconsistent in his career and might regress after a solid season last year and he is also currently on the 60-day disabled list with a knee injury. Matt Harrison is coming off three surgeries, and pitched only two games last year, so his durability is a concern.

Season win total pick:  Over 87

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Re: American League West Preview

Win Total Bets - AL West
By Bruce Marshall
VegasInsider.com

BEST BET...

Are we really going out on a limb with the Houston Astros (62½) as we did last year? In the case of the "Astronomicals" (as the inimitable Marty Brennaman refers to them) simply avoiding 100 losses would require increasing the 2013 win total by a dozen games, a daunting task. But hardly impossible. While the organization remains in full rebuild mode, at least it looks to have plugged a few of the gaping holes in last season's dike when the bullpen blew an astounding 29 (!) saves. GM Jeff Luhnow did not operate at the brightest end of the free-agent spectrum in the offseason, but he was fairly active nonetheless as he sought short-term upgrades while many prospects mature in the minors. Now, there is at least an MLB-look to the relief corps after adding serviceable arms such as Chad Qualls, Jesse Crain, and Matt Albers to the pen, with Qualls (making a return visit to Houston, where he was a member of the 2005 World Series team) being option number one in skipper Bo Porter's closer-by-committee approach that was tested in Kissimmee. New staff ace Scott Feldman posted a 3.86 ERA in 30 starts with the Cubs and O's last season and adds a vet presence to a rotation whose other young arms (Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholzer, Brad Peacock, and Paul Clemens) actually fared pretty well after the All-Star break, with a combined 2.73 ERA in 34 starts...not bad at all. Luhnow also thinks his trade addition of CF Dexter Fowler from the Rockies brings the 'Stros their first true leadoff hitter since Michael Bourn was dealt to the Braves in 2011, and many believe it is just a matter of time before young OF George Springer proves his gaudy minor league stats are legit. No one is expecting Houston to contend in the foreseeable future, but modest improvement from an upgraded bullpen should at least avoid some of those disastrous late-inning meltdowns, and avoiding 100 losses appears a lot more within reach than it did a year ago. It's an "over" for us at Minute Maid Park.

THE REST...

The LA Angels of Anaheim (86½) continue to attempt covering their tracks after some personnel miscues of recent seasons when owner Arte Moreno had stars in his eyes. To this point, at least, the big-bucks additions of 1B Albert Pujols and OF Josh Hamilton have yet to pay dividends. Injury woes were partly at fault a year ago as the Halos fell to beneath .500, with maladies especially costly for Pujols, who missed the last half of the season due to a plantar fascia tear (it was painful to watch Pujols move even before his foot gave out last summer). But corresponding concerns surfaced in a pitching staff that imploded, with the ERA ballooning to 4.23 (ranking 11th in the AL), and we are hardly convinced that under-fire GM Jerry DiPoto's "reaches" in the trade market (Hector Santiago from the Chisox & Tyler Skaggs from the D-backs) will prove upgrades to a rotation with questions beyond Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. The Halos also likely open the season without a lefty in the bullpen, at least until Sean Burnett returns to active duty in late April or early May. Moreover, there is plenty of pressure on young RF Kole Calhoun to handle leadoff duties that Mike Scioscia believes would be an unnecessary burden to Mike Trout, penciled instead in front of Pujols in Scioscia's batting order. A healthy Pujols and Hamilton, or not, the Halos, who have lagged behind the Rangers and A's the past few seasons, are going to have a hard time climbing back up the AL West ladder unless DiPoto's pitching upgrades prove useful. We're not convinced, and instead look "under" at the Big A.

We wonder how long Robinson Cano is going to be on speaking terms with new agent Jay-Z after the rap mogul engineered the All-Star second baseman's FA move to the far away Seattle Mariners (81½) in the offseason. Let's just say we don't expect to see much of Beyonce' at Safeco Field this summer as Cano toils in the relative obscurity of the Northwest and with a perennial underachieving team that once again has made a switch in the dugout, with ex-Pirates skipper Lloyd McClendon attempting to pick up the pieces from the failed Eric Wedge regime. Protecting Cano in the Mariner lineup will not be Mark Teixeira or Alfonso Soriano, but likely rather a combination of offseason additions such as ex-Brewer FA Corey Hart (hurt almost the entirety of 2013 and limited again this spring at Peoria by a sore back and forearm) and ex-Marlin Logan Morrison, both also penciled into McClendon's jerry-rigged outfield. There is a bit of star power on the roster with Cano joining staff ace King Felix, but the rotation is a bit shorthanded at the outset with number two starter Hisashi Iwakuma having missed the Cactus League with a sprained finger tendon on his right (throwing hand) and likely out for at least another month, while ex-Twin Scott Baker is a risk as he tries to bounce back from Tommy John surgery. We are also not particularly high on new closer Fernando Rodney, whose high-wire act out of the pen in Tampa Bay made it an easy decision for the Rays to look elsewhere for bullpen help in the offseason. Cano alone is not going to add 11 wins to a team that was buried deep below .500; we suspect some of that money under-fire GM Jack Zduriencik used on Cano could have been put to better use adding multiple components to a ragged roster. They're already talking about the Seahawks again in Seattle, where the M's appear destined to become an afterthought once again by summer in another likely "under" performance.

The Oakland A's (87½) continue to confound the experts by punching well above their weight, and a surprise winner of the West two years running in what might be the jewels of GM Billy Beane's decorated tenure. Beane was shrewdly wheeling and dealing once again in the offseason, loading up his bullpen with new closer ex-Oriole Jim Johnson (who should benefit from the bigger dimensions at the Coliseum) and ex-Padre set-up man Luke Gregorson to join holdovers Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and Dan Otero, giving skipper Bob Melvin plenty of options to reduce the workload on his young rotation, made up of FA addition Scott Kazmir and four starters aged 25 or younger. The solid pen should come in handy after the staff lost ace Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery and will be minus A.J. Griffin for perhaps a month out of the gate. Beane's assembly line of arms now features ex-Vandy star and last year's rookie phenom Sonny Gray as the opening-day starter. More expected production from RF Josh Reddick (recovered from the bad wrist that slowed him considerably last summer) and the power potential of Yoenis Cespedes should provide enough runs, and skipper Bob Melvin's productive platoon systems at C, 1B, 2B, and DH now have more options with versatile switch-hitter Nick Punto (recently Dodgers) and three-position OF Craig Gentry (ex-Rangers) added to the mix. Mostly, however, the A's have learned to play and win together, a concept yet to take hold elsewhere in the West at Seattle or with the new generation of Angels free-agent stars. Expect another 90+-win season in Oakland, where the Coliseum is a surprisingly nice place to watch a game as long as attendance doesn't exceed 20,000 to overcrowd the tight concourse (and make it a chore to get that great BBQ down the left-field line), and one more "over" for the Billy Beanes.

It was a tough March in Surprise for the Texas Rangers (86½), who lost projected starters 2B Jurickson Profar (shoulder) and C Geovany Soto (knee) for up to 12 weeks each, compounding depth issues made more acute with offseason departures of FAs Nelson Cruz, Daniel Murphy, and A.J. Pierzynski, Lance Berkman's retirement, and the trade of Ian Kinsler to the Tigers. The staff also lost starter Matt Garza and closer Joe Nathan to free agency, so manager Ron Washington (retained despite another late-season flameout and loss in a pre-wildcard playoff "playoff" vs. the Rays) could be excused for needing a game program to keep track of all of the roster changes. Moreover, the front office has a different look with Nolan Ryan (now consulting with Houston instead) leaving the organization after apparently losing out in a power struggle with young GM Jon Daniels. Speaking of Daniels, he did not spend the offseason sitting on his hands, adding deluxe table-setter FA LF Shin-Soo Choo, a prototype leadoff hitter during his stay with the Reds, and extra pop with 1B Prince Fielder as the return in the Kinsler trade, but the spring injuries have given Washington less flexibility with his situational substitutions. And pitching remains tenuous beyond dominant starter Yu Darvish, especially with starter Derek Holland out until perhaps the All-Star break after microfracture surgery on his knee in January, and Matt Harrison off back surgery. There is still some star quality on the roster, but with Daniels likely to search for reinforcements (especially at catcher), the Rangers have more of a work-in-progress look than usual, so it's a no-call for us in Arlington.

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