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Hope and Las Vegas

Spring Training. It sounds like perpetual hope, and universal optimism. It smells like fresh pine tar, and champagne-soaked dreams. Here there is snow and ice, but in Florida it's warm and sunny, and there are berries on every corner, and kids selling lemonade, and a chicken in every pot. There are no underdogs in February, no mathematical elimination. There are no injuries, no crushed spirits, no reasons to think the "payroll-conscious" Nats shouldn't go out and shock the world this summer. Right? Right?

"Certainly they're the longest shot we've got to win the NL," said Dan O'Brien, a senior oddsmaker at Las Vegas Sports Consultants, who didn't seem particularly affected by the perpetual optimism that is supposed to be rampant this time of year. "Their rotation is absolutely abysmal, they've got retreads and injury problems up and down the rotation, their best guy--John Patterson--is coming off an injury, their lineup is incredibly weak, they lost their best player in Soriano, their outfield's dismal...."

Etc. Like I said, not very optimistic. The Nats, in fact, are not merely the longest shot to win the NL, according to LVSC, which helps Nevada sports books set lines. They're also the longest shot to win the World Series. Three hundred-to-one longshots.

"They're certainly the prohibitive underdog; in fact, we've bumped them lower than the Royals," said O'Brien, to whom "hope" is evidently a four-letter word. "They're a worse long shot than the Royals, Pirates, Devil Rays, anybody you want to come up with."

Worse than the Royals? "Really?" I said, giving him another shot to change his mind.

"Absolutely," he replied.

But then we discussed a few possible bright spots. The Tigers were massive underdogs last year, and they won the pennant and went to the World Series. But they weren't massive underdogs like the Nats are massive underdogs; LVSC's opening line on the 2006 Tigers was 60-1. The Marlins were written off before last season began, and they put a nice little run together, keeping their fans interested for months; what fans they have, anyhow. But as O'Brien pointed out, the Marlins' pitching question marks were unproven youngsters, while the bodies filling the Nats' rotation "have had chances at the Major League level, and other than Patterson and [Mike] O'Connor, they haven't produced."

In fact, O'Brien explained that 300-1 was actually on the low side; that if you simulated the 2007 season over and over again, the Nats' mathematical chances of winning the World Series would actually be even worse, but that sports books are wary of going much above 300-1 before the season begins. I tried to make him understand that 300-1 just seemed excessively cruel at this time of year, and I guess he understood where I was coming from.

"It is a little bit depressing," he agreed. "Supposedly Spring brings the rebirth of hope....Well, look at the bright side, at least they're not paying $11 million a year for Gil Meche. It's one thing to suck, but it's another to do so while you're way overpaying for Gil Meche as your No. 1 starter."

See? There might be an ice storm outside, but baseball keeps us optimistic.

By Dan Steinberg  |  February 13, 2007; 6:14 PM ET
Categories:  Nats  
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