Assuming the coronavirus pandemic allows for a normal season in 2021 the Los Angeles Dodgers will owe three of their players—Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts and Kenley Jansen—around $75 million combined. The Tampa Bay Rays rarely pay that much to their entire roster.
Yet these two franchises, who operate on opposite ends of the sport’s disparate financial spectrum, now find themselves in the exact same place: squaring off for a championship in the World Series after posting the best records in their respective leagues.
On the surface, it seems like a classic example of rich versus poor: deep-pocketed coastal elites against scrappy upstarts who somehow thrive despite their limited resources. It suggests that, while a giant payroll certainly helps, anybody can compete with enough creativity and ingenuity, even without any artificial constraints on spending.
But at the most precarious moment for baseball’s fragile labor relations in a quarter-century, with the threat of a work stoppage after the 2021 season looming large, this matchup between the Dodgers and Rays serves as an inadvertent referendum on the game’s economics.
While fans marvel at Betts’s superhuman talent and the ridiculous ascension of the Rays’ Randy Arozarena, officials from both sides of the negotiating table—not to mention 28 other team owners—will assess what it means for the future if the small-market Rays can rise above the competition with their microscopic budget. The Rays’ payroll, prorated for the curtailed schedule, registered at under $30 million, lower than all but two teams. The Dodgers once again sat near the top of the list.
“You want to see teams find success in different ways. That’s part of what makes the game what it is,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “I don’t think you ever want to see there be one particular cookie-cutter form of success in anything. That’s not what makes it fun.”
As the only major North American professional sport without a salary cap—a hard-earned bargaining victory that the baseball players’ union will likely never relinquish—baseball’s integrity hinges on the paradigm that money doesn’t matter much. Sure, the wealthy Dodgers, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will buy every expensive free agent. But don’t worry, residents of Miami, Milwaukee or Pittsburgh, your hometown squad can do just as well without that luxury. Commissioner Rob Manfred frequently pushes that argument in his public statements, rejecting the notion of any correlation between payroll and on-field success.
He points to organizations like the “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics, who have qualified for the postseason 11 times since 2000 with consistently tiny payrolls. He mentions the Pirates reaching the playoffs in three consecutive seasons in the middle of the last decade while spendthrifts like the Los Angeles Angels faltered. He’ll cite the Rays, the epitome of frugality, now winning more pennants in the last 12 years (two) than the Yankees (one).
But a deeper look at the landscape paints a more complicated picture. Though the Rays and A’s have accomplished remarkable things while keeping their costs low with a rotating cast of characters, they remain the exception. The Dodgers have won eight straight division crowns and on Tuesday night will appear in their third World Series in the past four years. The Red Sox have won four titles this century, the most of any team. The Yankees have qualified for the postseason in 22 of the last 26 seasons.
Perhaps more telling, the importance of wealth shows up in the most important category of all: championships. The Washington Nationals won last year thanks to three pitchers with contracts worth $140 million or more. The Red Sox won in 2018 with the highest budget in the majors. All told, teams that finished in the top half of payrolls have won 18 of the last 20 World Series, including 14 from the top 10, according to data compiled by Baseball Prospectus. No team so close to the bottom of the payroll rankings as the 2020 Rays has come away with a title in decades, if ever.
That reality enables the Dodgers to enter each season all but knowing they will contend.
“Everybody was expecting us to get to the World Series,” said Dodgers utility man Enrique Hernández, who hit a crucial home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday. “We were expecting to get to the World Series.”
These Rays can change that with a victory that would send shock waves across the industry. If they pull it off, they will have beaten the teams with the top three opening-day payrolls—the Yankees, Dodgers and Houston Astros—all in the same postseason, further cementing their outsized influence on the sport.
Even the richest teams now use the Rays as a model. They run their organization with ruthless efficiency, using a deep commitment to analytics and a dispassionate approach to roster building that allows them to overcome their economic station. Removing all emotion from the equation comes at a cost, preventing fans from growing attached to players whom the Rays will soon part with, but it generates results.
“Our brand of baseball is not the same as the Astros or the Yankees,” Neander said. “To show that there are different ways to do this, sure, I think that’s great for baseball.”
When the Dodgers needed somebody to run their baseball operations group after the 2014 season, they turned to Tampa Bay and poached the Rays’ general manager, Andrew Friedman. Exactly one year after winning the World Series for the fourth time since 2004, the Red Sox did the same, picking the Rays’ Chaim Bloom as their chief baseball officer. Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner, the son of the freewheeling George Steinbrenner, has said many times he believes his team can compete for titles without gigantic payrolls as well.
A Rays win—juxtaposed against yet another Dodgers loss—would only reinforce that belief, no doubt inspiring owners to wonder how Tampa Bay can win with so little when they cannot. Why commit $365 million to Betts, like the Dodgers did in July, when the Rays prove that the key actually stems from improving their analytics and player development departments instead? A Dodgers title, which would be their first since 1988, would emphasize the power of superstars like Betts to carry a team over the hump.
Neander said the Rays don’t try to outsmart anybody. He joked that he went to Virginia State while many of his peers graduated from Ivy League schools, so he couldn’t do it if he tried. Nonetheless, the Rays represent modern baseball, not only because of their performance, but because of how little they spend to achieve it.
“We are almost entirely focused on just doing what we think is best for us and for our organization,” Neander said. “Be it payroll, be it revenue disparity, any of that stuff, we don’t really spend a whole lot of time on it, because it doesn’t change anything.”
With four more wins, it very well could.
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Appeared in the October 20, 2020, print edition as ‘The World Series of Opposites.’