On their way to the World Series, the Rays once again proved capable of slaying the game’s financial behemoths. A team with a payroll of less than $100 million continues to successfully employ its slingshots — handled adeptly by a stable of slingers capable of launching rocks at 98-plus miles per hour — to drop competitors with payrolls that are more than twice their own.
In back-to-back rounds of the postseason, the Rays took down the Yankees and the Astros in winner-take-all contests. In so doing, they offered a reminder that success is not merely the province of those who can afford it.
New York, according to projections of Spotrac, carried a payroll of nearly $260 million for luxury tax purposes, highest in MLB; Houston’s luxury tax payroll was $223 million, the second-highest in the game. Tampa Bay’s talent and a roster constructed of perfectly fitting parts overcame the financial advantages of its competitors.
In the process, the Rays assured that they will be held up as a model throughout the game — an inspired example of roster-building that other teams will try to emulate. Regardless of market size, every team in baseball certainly can learn from what Tampa Bay accomplished — particularly given that the Rays completely remade their roster in just three years, with only five of the 43 players who appeared in the big leagues for them this year having done so in the 2017 season.
Other teams certainly have taken note of Tampa Bay’s success. It’s not a coincidence that both the Red Sox (chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom) and Astros (GM James Click) entrusted leadership of their baseball operations departments last winter to former Rays executives.
Yet the model presented by the Rays is not one that the Red Sox will — or should — use as a blueprint. Even though the team took pains (in the fullest sense of the word) to get under the luxury tax threshold this year, the Red Sox are not about to start doing business as if they were a small-market team. Instead, the model to which they aspire resides on the opposite coast, with a Dodgers franchise that had the best record in baseball this year and has now won the NL West eight consecutive times — true sustainable contention.
LA, under the oversight of former Rays GM Andrew Friedman, has been able to take a different approach to roster construction. Certainly, the Dodgers have proved capable of finding undervalued young talent and helping players achieve new pinnacles of success, as has been the case with Chris Taylor, Max Muncy, and Justin Turner. Yet Turner in particular underscores the difference between the Rays and Dodgers, and why the latter provides a better template for the Red Sox.
Tampa Bay’s competitiveness typically requires it to shed talent — whether prospect-for-prospect deals (such as the deal that sent highly regarded lefty Matthew Liberatore to St. Louis to bring back outfielder Randy Arozarena) or deals of veteran cornerstones such as Evan Longoria and Chris Archer. Aside from those players who sign early long-term deals, constant roster turnover results in what seems like a ticking clock that follows every Rays player for his tenure in Tampa Bay. At the start of the ALDS, half of the players on the Rays' 28-player roster had been acquired via trade.
Such an approach can prove beneficial. The Rays are rarely weighed down by the inefficient final years of long-term deals. But the difficulty of retaining their best players also makes it harder to keep windows of contention pried open and makes the franchise vulnerable to longer down periods, as was the case over the course of four straight losing seasons from 2014-17.
By contrast, the Dodgers have been able to choose the talent pools from which they’ve drawn — creating a remarkable run that has become the gold standard for combining small-market ingenuity with financial might. LA not only developed a castoff like Turner (signed in 2014 after the Mets released him) into a star, but also retained him with a palatable four-year, $64 million deal when he arrived at free agency.
At the same time, the Dodgers have carefully nurtured a remarkable talent pipeline. The presence of Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Dustin May, and Will Smith on the roster — among so many other homegrown contributors — is the foundation for what Los Angeles is able to do.
The talent pipeline has been sufficiently robust to fill holes, make trades without sacrificing the top level of talent in their system, and provide financial flexibility for their selective instances of top-of-the-market deals such as the re-signing of franchise icon Clayton Kershaw or, most recently, the trade and $365 million extension for Mookie Betts.
Even for a big-market team, a deal such as the one for Betts doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It only happens when the rest of the roster is formed in such a way to support the occasional foray into such financial terrain for one of the game’s foremost difference-makers.
It’s the type of deal the Dodgers could make based on their homegrown pipeline and the structure of the rest of their roster. It’s the type of move the Rays couldn’t make because they couldn’t afford to do so, and the Red Sox believed they could not as a result of their depleted core of young talent and a number of long-term deals that amplified the risk associated with another for Betts.
Yet while Betts represented a dividing line between the Sox and Dodgers this past offseason, the work done by Friedman and the Dodgers to get to the point of that trade and extension remains accessible to the Sox in a way that it is not to a team like the Rays. The Sox still have the ability to engage in forms of roster-building that the Rays cannot — as evidenced by the team’s ability to extend a homegrown standout such as Xander Bogaerts in his final year before free agency.
As they look to return to competitiveness moving forward, the Red Sox can look with envy upon where the Rays are, and what they’ll be playing for in the days ahead. Yet access to a fuller array of roster-building tools suggests that the Red Sox should eye Los Angeles, rather than Tampa Bay, as the standard to which they aspire.