ARLINGTON, TEXAS – The Twins’ self-image has always pivoted toward underdog status, the belief (and sure, often the reality) that they are competing for the same championship against teams with more resources, more margin for error, and especially more money. So if Minnesotans identify with anybody in a World Series matchup that features the most lopsided payroll disparity in history, surely it’s the Tampa Bay Rays, right?
Armed with the majors’ 28th-largest payroll this year — a group that, before everything was prorated because of the pandemic, was to be paid about $58 million this season, or about $87 million less than even the Twins — the Rays won more games than any American League team and survived a grueling three-round playoff challenge to reach their second World Series.
“You’re not thinking about [payroll] when you’re on the field. You’re trying to play well and win games,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “All that other stuff, the contracts, it doesn’t matter when you’ve got a game to win.”
But in some ways, payroll aside, the Twins more resemble the Los Angeles Dodgers, an organization that had committed to spend $227 million this year, pre-pandemic, in an effort to end its 32-year championship drought. Their collection of players, more expensive than any but the New York Yankees’, has won eight consecutive NL West titles but hasn’t claimed the Commissioner’s Trophy since Kirk Gibson hit the most iconic home run in Dodgers history.
If those millions suggest that the Dodgers have simply bought up an All-Star team’s worth of free agents, though, look again. Drafting and developing your own core players is generally regarded as the most economical way to build a winner, and that description fits the Dodgers — and the Twins — far more comfortably than the Rays.
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Three of Los Angeles’ most important players — shortstop Corey Seager and starting pitchers Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw — were Dodgers first-round picks, as was catcher Will Smith. Cody Bellinger, last season’s NL MVP, was a fifth-rounder, and much of the depth on the pitching staff — Julio Urias, Dustin May, Pedro Baez, Victor Gonzalez and Tony Gonsolin, along with longtime closer Kenley Jansen — was drafted by the Dodgers in the top 10 rounds, or signed as international teenagers.
By contrast, the only two first-rounders on the World Series roster for the Rays are pitchers Blake Snell and Shane McClanahan; the former is a Cy Young Award winner, but the latter made his major league debut this postseason. Only two Tampa Bay regular position players came all the way through their farm system: second baseman Brandon Lowe and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.
And when the Dodgers believed they were one player away from a potential championship, they splurged on Mookie Betts, perhaps the best player in the game right now, by pulling off a blockbuster trade to acquire him, then spending $365 million to keep him around for 12 years.
“We’d have beaten the Red Sox in 2018 if we had him then,” Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts said.
The Twins, too, are mostly homegrown. Their most frequent 2020 starter at eight of the nine defensive positions was originally drafted or signed by them, and 24 of their 60 pitching starts were made by players who came up through their system. And like the Dodgers, the Twins splurged on a star this year, spending $93 million to acquire third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Safe to say, that blueprint hasn’t worked out as well for the Twins as for the Dodgers; Donaldson didn’t even appear in the Twins’ two-day playoff flop, stopped by a calf injury, while Betts might be on his way to a World Series MVP trophy.
“Adding Josh to [our roster], we certainly felt we could build off that and still be a well-above-average offense. And we weren’t for the majority of the year,” Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey said in an autopsy of the Twins’ postseason fizzle, two days after they were eliminated by the Astros. “I wish I could tell you I could put my finger on exactly why that was the case.”
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If nothing else, the 2020 World Series has demonstrated one important fact to roster-builders such as Falvey: There is free major league talent lying around unused, underappreciated, on almost every roster, in almost every minor league system, and those players are just waiting for opportunities.
Randy Arozarena has been the breakout star of the postseason, and on Friday, the Rays outfielder broke Derek Jeter’s record for hits by a rookie in a postseason. He was a little-known throw-in in a minor trade with the Cardinals in January. Similarly, first baseman Ji-Man Choi had played for five other major league organizations before the Rays traded for him.
The Dodgers, too, have reclamation projects in important roles: Mariners castoff Chris Taylor starts at either second base or left field; cleanup hitter Max Muncy was picked up in 2017 after being released by the Athletics; and Justin Turner, who homered Saturday to break his tie with Duke Snider for most postseason home runs in Dodgers history, was a minor league camp invitee six years ago after getting cut by the Mets.
And Twins decisionmakers must wince as they watch this Series, too. Over four days in January 2019, Falvey allowed righthanders Aaron Slegers and John Curtiss, players who had reached the majors but not really excelled yet, to depart through waivers or a minor deal. Both have pitched important innings this postseason as part of a deep Tampa Bay bullpen. And two months earlier, in November 2018, the Twins dealt minor league righthander Nick Anderson to the Marlins; the Brainerd High School product now is one of the Rays’ most important relievers.
“That’s what makes us the Rays,” said Cash, who used all 28 players on his roster in only the first three World Series games. “We’re going to have to utilize our entire roster to win on a nightly basis, and we’ve tried to stay consistent to that.”