MLB

The World Series Narrative on the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays Is Wrong

Clayton Kershaw vs. Tyler Glasnow is almost an afterthought. That’s because everyone is busy preparing for Game 1 by framing the 2020 World Series as the big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers against the spendthrift Tampa Bay Rays.

The Dodgers had baseball’s second-highest payroll this season. Tampa Bay had the third-lowest payroll. While the numbers support the David vs. Goliath narrative, the facts require closer scrutiny because what we’ll witness this week is a money disparity but not a talent gap.

In fact, Tampa Bay might be too much for LA to handle.

The Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t buy a pennant

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Pitcher Clayton Kershaw ($16.3 million) and outfielder Mookie Betts ($10 million) made almost as much combined this season as the $28.3 million that the Tampa Bay Rays spent on their whole roster. You’ll hear that factoid a lot during World Series week.

Betts’ acquisition from the Boston Red Sox was a big offseason story because the Los Angeles Dodgers took on a huge contract extension that the Red Sox were unwilling to shoulder. With payrolls pared down to reflect the 60-game regular season brought on by the pandemic, the Dodgers spent $107.9 million on their roster, second only to the New York Yankees, according to Spotrac.com. 

However, the focus should be more on Kershaw than Betts because he is more reflective of who the Dodgers have been during eight straight years in the playoffs. While the roster does have high-salaried free-agent signings like outfielder A.J. Pollock who wouldn’t fit under the Tampa Bay Rays salary structure, Kershaw and quite a few Dodgers are home-grown talent.

Yes, they’re paying them more than the Rays could afford, but mainstays like Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger arrived via the June drafts, never left, and are commanding veteran salaries that a large-market team can afford. Walker Buehler and Will Smith, who could be batterymates for the next decade, are more recent examples of players coming up through the farm system.

The Tampa Bay Rays are a self-made team

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When the Tampa Bay Rays go after a free agent, it’s more likely to be a Charlie Morton than a Mookie Betts. Morton was a journeyman pitcher until winning 29 games over two seasons for the Houston Astros a decade into his big-league career.  He signed with the Rays at age 36 for $30 million over two years, with the actual cost this year $5.66 million because of the pandemic.

If Morton’s skills fade next year, Tampa Bay is on the hook for just $15 million. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Dodgers will be keeping their fingers crossed for 12 years (and $365 million) when it comes to Betts.

Would Tampa Bay like to spend lots more? Sure, but the Rays would also like to attract more than the 1.25 million fans a year that have been the norm the past few normal seasons. So, the Rays rely on the draft, trades, and low-key free agents to compete.

They may be outspent, but not outsmarted, which is why this isn’t a David vs. Goliath World Series. Second baseman Brandon Lowe, 25, led the team in homers this summer. Rookie pitcher Josh Fleming, 24, went 5-0 in seven starts. Outfielder Randy Arozarena, 25, hit seven homers in the final month of the season. They’re players who came up through the system, have paid dividends for modest salaries, and aren’t yet eligible for arbitration – let alone free agency.

In fact, USA Today notes that the lineup is loaded with such players, including first baseman Ji-Man Choi, shortstop Willy Adams, and third baseman Joey Wendle.

Forget the money, here are the numbers that matter

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Again, the teams’ payroll disparity will be the hot topic during the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays. That threatens to overshadow the fact that Los Angeles (43-17) and Tampa Bay (40-20) posted the two best records in baseball during the regular season.

In the postseason, the Rays took out the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Yankees, and the Houston Astros. Houston’s payroll nearly tripled the Rays, and the Yankees nearly quadrupled them.

Answer this, though: Would you feel better sending Charlie Morton, with his career 7-2 postseason record and 2.84 ERA to the mound this week, or Clayton Kershaw at 11-12 and 4.31?