In the bottom of the eighth inning on Tuesday night, it was still very much up for grabs. The Los Angeles Dodgers led Game 6 of the World Series by one run, having finally broken through for two runs in the sixth inning after Tampa manager Kevin Cash, in an analytics fever dream, pulled starter Blake Snell when he had the misfortune to allow a measly single.
That the championship series had gone deep into the sixth game and been fought to almost a draw was, in a way, ridiculous. But it was also Major League Baseball in 2020. The Dodgers have a payroll that is roughly three times that of the Rays. The salaries of two of their players this season, Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts, were enough to cover, collectively, the salaries of the 23 highest-paid Rays. The Dodgers were supposed to pay David Price US$32-million this season before he opted out, an amount that would have covered Tampa’s entire active roster, minus Charlie Morton and Kevin Kiermaier. The Dodgers are a glamour franchise in a beautiful, classic ballpark. The Rays are so unloved that they are trying to sell half of themselves to Montreal for some reason.
And yet, it was that close.
The game, and the Series, ultimately finished in a way that demonstrated the gap between the two franchises. Betts, whom the Dodgers acquired in the off-season, adding another giant salary and an MVP talent, powdered a ball over the left-field fence to lead off the eighth inning and extend the Los Angeles lead to 3-1. And in the ninth, with the World Series in the balance, Cash was out of bullets. The Rays aren’t a team that keeps many veterans around in case they might be needed in the late innings of a close game. Those guys ain’t cheap. Mike Brosseau, 2020 salary of US$563,500, came into to pinch hit. He struck out looking. With two out, it was up to Wily Adames, 2020 salary of US$579,500, to keep Tampa alive. He was hitting .136 in the playoffs. He struck out looking. Ballgame.
It is tempting, after the Dodgers’ win, to imagine that they have proven the merits of trying to compete in the traditional way. Yes, they use modern statistical tools, with a top baseball executive who was literally poached from the Rays, but they also spend a lot of money, both to acquire guys like Betts and also to keep their own stars from leaving. Had Kershaw come up with Tampa, there’s no way he’s still on that team after 13 seasons.
But if the rest of baseball is going to conclude anything from that World Series, it’s just as likely that they will see the Tampa model as the preferable one to emulate. Which ought to be a distressing thing for Major League Baseball.
The Rays have made the playoffs for two consecutive years, having taken the Houston Astros to five games in the ALDS last season. There’s every reason to believe they will make the postseason again in 2021, assuming there is a 2021 season, with most of the World Series roster still under team control. There’s even more of a chance that they will be in the playoffs if, as per the wishes of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, the postseason field is expanded again. This year’s extraordinarily goofy format of a 16-team playoff — up from 10, which was up from the eight allowed in as recently as 2011 — was supposed to be a pandemic one-off, something to make up for the fact that MLB could only squeeze in a 60-game regular season. But Manfred has signalled that he likes having more teams in a playoff chase, and the extra playoff television money is a happy side effect. Any such change in 2021 would have to be negotiated with the players’ association, which is suspicious of expanded playoffs, but given that the league owners are undoubtedly going to be asking for significant salary concessions, the MLBPA might agree to a larger playoff field just to preserve money for its members.
And that would mean more Tampa-style, low-payroll teams in the playoffs. Fully half of the teams in the postseason in 2020 were in the bottom half of league payrolls — Tampa, Oakland, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Toronto, Minnesota, Cincinnati and the Chicago White Sox. The Rays just proved, again, that once a team gets into the postseason, they stand a decent chance of winning a series against a team that is more experienced, or more wealthy, or both. They beat the New York Yankees and Houston Astros, and made things exceedingly tough on the Dodgers.
Given the option of trying to compete with the shrinking group of big-spending clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees, more franchises will go in the other direction, run a low-payroll operation that hopes to hang around the fringes of the playoff race — and every few years do better than that when the team hits the sweet spot of value for money. This approach is lousy for fans. Homegrown players leave or are traded as they become costly, and good rosters are inevitably broken apart so the stock of youngsters can be refreshed. It’s a fun approach if you don’t mind buying a jersey that says “Cost Control” on the back. The Rays, of course, were one of the pioneers of this approach, developing stars who are destined to finish their careers elsewhere, on bigger salaries than Tampa would ever be willing to pay. They’ve been to the World Series now twice in 13 seasons.
Or one fewer time, over that same period, than the Dodgers.
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