This year’s World Series will have its share of pandemic-era adjustments. Fan attendance will be limited at the best-of-seven game Major League Baseball championship, and it will be held at a neutral venue for the first time.
But perhaps the most unlikely feature of this year’s Fall Classic, as the series that starts on Tuesday is known, is it will pit the cash-rich Los Angeles Dodgers against the Tampa Bay Rays, the surprise American League pennant winner on a shoestring budget.
The 2020 World Series will be the most uneven match in terms of player wages in nearly two decades: the Dodgers, a major market National League team returning for its third World Series appearance in four years, boasts the second highest payroll of the MLB’s 30 clubs, while the Rays rank 28th, according to data compiled by Baseball Prospectus.
Based on opening day payrolls and adjusted for the pandemic-shortened season, the Dodgers are estimated to pay out $95m to the team’s 30 starting players this year, while the Rays just $28.8m, according to Jeff Euston, analyst at Baseball Prospectus. It marks the widest gulf since 2003, when the 25th-ranked Florida (now Miami) Marlins defeated the number-one New York Yankees.
Baseball clubs in particular have been a popular focus of quantitative analysis, as chronicled in hit book and film Moneyball. Unlike other North American professional sports, MLB lacks a traditional salary cap, making baseball a frontier for number-crunching and innovation in player management.
Major market teams including the Dodgers, the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, pay handsomely for top talent. The Dodgers had the highest wage bill in the league based on year-end payrolls from 2014 through 2017, reaching the World Series in 2017 and 2018, and yet the club has not won a title since 1988.
“Not too many people get to go to the World Series three times,” said Clayton Kershaw, a left-handed starting pitcher and the franchise’s highest-paid player this season. “It doesn’t mean it’s just going to happen, we gotta go make it happen.”
In July, the Dodgers extended their contract with star right fielder Mookie Betts for $365m over 12 years, the second highest payout in baseball history. Eight players have contracts worth between $10m and $32m annually, based on a regular 162-game season.
The Rays, meanwhile, run a far leaner operation: their highest-paid player, right-handed pitcher Charlie Morton, is projected to earn just $5.5m this year, down from $15.5m after adjustments for the shortened season. Only he and centrefielder Kevin Kiermaier have contracts worth $10m or more.
“We’re not a team that is built with superstar after superstar,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash at a press conference this weekend after advancing to the World Series. “We’re a team that maximises opportunities and tries to get matchups to help us win games, and we did that really, really well this year.”
Yet both teams finished first in their respective regular-season divisions this year.
Furthermore, both are controlled by financiers. The Dodgers were bought out of bankruptcy in 2012 for a then-record $2bn by a consortium including asset manager Guggenheim Partners and basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The Rays have been owned since 2005 by Stuart Sternberg, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs.
Mr Sternberg, speaking to media at baseball meetings last December, said he was not averse to shelling out for marquee talent if the price was right.
“My point is that as much as we do have a budget, it’s a very wide range, and the range is from $40[million] to $80m,” he said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
That was before the pandemic, and before the Rays made their unlikely run to the top of the American League division — their first World Series appearance since 2008. Should they win four games against the Dodgers, they will secure their first title, a fairy tale akin to the shock Premier League win by Leicester City in 2016.
While the financial benefits from this year’s World Series remain uncertain because of the pandemic — no economic boost to Los Angeles or Tampa Bay from throngs of baseball fans at games, no crush for ticket sales at the teams’ respective stadiums — players hope it will pay off for themselves, at least.
“You sit here and look at this group of guys and, I always say, we don’t have a whole lot of household names,” said Mr Kiermaier, the Rays’ longest tenured player, after clinching their World Series berth on Friday. “But at the same time, people are making a name for themselves right now.”