In Dodgers-Rays World Series, Tampa Is Goliath of Cheap Talent

Just how good could the Tampa Bay Rays be with the same budget as the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers?

As it stands, baseball’s quintessential small-market team is already pretty darn good. The teams have split the first two games of the best-of-seven World Series and posted nearly identical records in the Covid-shortened regular season. That’s despite the Rays’ shoestring payroll of $28 million -- a fraction of the $108 million the Dodgers spent on its star-studded roster.

Here’s one completely hypothetical way to look at it.

Using the concept of Wins Above Replacement, which measures how much extra value a given player would add versus a run-of-the-mill player, the Rays were 19 wins above replacement value this year, according to baseball-reference.com. That works out to $1.5 million spent per WAR. In layman’s terms, that means the Rays’ front office was better at finding above-average talent on the cheap than any team in the big leagues.

In Dodgers-Rays World Series, Tampa Is Goliath of Cheap Talent

Now, let’s scale up the Rays’ prowess with Dodgers money. With that pile of cash, the Rays would theoretically have been able to obtain players that would have put up 72 wins above replacement -- a roster where every hitter was better than San Diego Padres’ phenom Fernando Tatis Jr., and every pitcher better than Jacob deGrom, the reigning National League Cy Young award winner.

Of course, that’s ridiculous. Generational talents are just that, no matter a team’s analytics, scouting, or player development. And as in any field, whether baseball or finance, there are only so many diamonds in the rough.

But the thought experiment underscores how efficiently the Rays -- whose front office, led by Erik Neander, has plenty of brains, but little money -- have exploited the peculiar economics of baseball to their advantage.

Foremost, the Rays tend to shy away from pricey veterans and instead rely on talented, but largely anonymous, team-controlled players (think rookie outfielder and playoff sensation Randy Arozarena). It has only three who’ve played long enough, six years, to qualify for free agency; the Dodgers have seven. And the Rays have 18 players who’ve yet to reach three years of major-league service, which means a team can all but dictate what a player is paid, regardless of how much they could make in an open market.

In Dodgers-Rays World Series, Tampa Is Goliath of Cheap Talent

Veteran pitcher Charlie Morton, the Rays’ highest-paid player and one of its few free-agent signings, ate up nearly 20% of the team’s payroll. He’d be just the sixth-highest-paid player on the Dodgers, which signed All-Star right fielder Mookie Betts to a 12-year, $365 million contract in the off-season.

Of course, the Rays’ approach is all too familiar to the Dodgers. Its own front office is led by Andrew Friedman, who created the Rays playbook before he was lured to southern California. And as a former finance guy, he’s familiar with the concept of diminishing marginal returns.

But with the Dodgers’ deep pockets, Friedman doesn’t have to be as efficient as the Rays. He just needs his team, which despite being a perennial contender hasn’t won the World Series in 31 years, to play a little better.

Game 3 is tonight.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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