The Tampa Bay Rays won the American League pennant last season with a luxury-tax payroll of $85.1 million. The only AL team with a smaller payroll, the Baltimore Orioles, was tanking.
But when they arrived at the World Series, the Rays were taken out in six games by the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team running their playbook with more than double the payroll.
The Dodgers hired Andrew Friedman away from the Rays in 2014 to become their president of baseball operations. The Dodgers have a .606 winning percentage since then and have made the postseason every year, winning three pennants.
Los Angeles is the envy of all of baseball with a productive player development system that allows Friedman to make trades and sign free agents from a position of strength while at the same time having lowered the team’s luxury-tax payroll 20 percent from where it was in 2015.
In Dave Roberts, the Dodgers also have a widely respected manager who has created a clubhouse environment that fosters success.
The Dodgers are 7-2 favorites to repeat as World Series champions, something no team has done since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000.
This is the model the Red Sox hope to follow with Chaim Bloom as chief baseball officer.
If only it were that easy.
Friedman inherited a team that won 94 games in 2014 with 26-year-old Clayton Kershaw the ace of the pitching staff. The closer, Kenley Jansen, also 26, was emerging a dominant force.
The Dodgers also had three future All-Stars — Clay Bellinger, Joc Pederson, and Corey Seager — in their farm system.
In 2019, Bloom took over an extremely talented major league roster in Boston but also a prospect pool ranked in the lower third of the sport. He has since worked diligently at expanding the base of talent to give the Red Sox greater flexibility.
Twenty-three of the players on the 40-man roster have been acquired on Bloom’s watch.
In infielder Jonathan Araúz, lefthander Connor Seabold, infielder Jeter Downs, catcher Ronaldo Hernandez, infielder Blaze Jordan, outfielder Jeisson Rosario, third baseman Hudson Potts, righthander Garrett Whitlock, catcher Connor Wong, and second baseman Nick Yorke, the Sox have added 10 legitimate prospects via trades, the draft, and the Rule 5 draft.
If some of those players click, the infusion of talent should allow the Red Sox to make better, Dodger-like decisions.
“When I was with the Rays and the Red Sox and Yankees were employing some small-market discipline while also having the financial might, I felt like we had no chance of competing,” Friedman said after Bloom was hired.
“When they were going out and trying to build through free agency, I felt like we would have an opportunity to be able to compete with them and be able to tighten it up and figure it out. When large-revenue teams find that right balance, it makes them dangerous.”
That’s the goal for the Sox, to strike that balance.
The Dodgers had the prospects to acquire Mookie Betts from the Red Sox with enough still on hand to sign him to a 12-year, $365 million extension knowing other positions would be manned by cost-controlled, inexpensive players.
They followed that up by signing righthander Trevor Bauer for potentially three years and $102 million.
“It’s finding that right balance between the disciplines of a smaller-market team coupled with having the financial might to make different types of deals,” Friedman said.
Friedman and his staff also have drafted wisely. Walker Buehler, a 26-year-old righthander poised to be their ace once Kershaw retires, was the 24th overall pick of the 2015 draft.
The 2016 draft produced catcher Will Smith, infielder Gavin Lux, and righthanders Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May. Smith, Gonsolin, and May all played prominent roles in helping Los Angeles win the Series last season.
Friedman also made small trades that turned out to be important, acquiring utility players Kiké Hernández and Chris Taylor and catcher Austin Barnes when they were prospects. All three were on the championship team.
There were mistakes, too. Brandon McCarthy was signed for four years and $48 million before the 2015 season and started only 29 games over three years before being traded.
Friedman also sent outfielder Yordan Álvarez to the Astros in 2016 for reliever Josh Fields.
Fields had a 2.61 ERA over 124 appearances for the Dodgers before being released in 2019. Alvarez was the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year for Houston, posting a 1.067 OPS.
Bloom wants to put the Sox where they are in a position to overcome the inevitable mistakes. For now, they have $32.1 million in dead money on their payroll.
The Red Sox beat the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series and are 108-114 since then, without returning to the postseason. The Dodgers have only gotten better. They’re the blueprint.
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