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This World Series offers financial lessons gleaned from both the Dodgers and Rays

ARLINGTON, TEXAS — OCTOBER 23: The Tampa Bay Rays look on during a pitching change against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the fifth inning in Game Three of the 2020 MLB World Series at Globe Life Field on October 23, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images)

ARLINGTON, Texas — The easy route is to look at the Los Angeles Dodgers and their $227 million payroll — what they would have spent in a season not shortened by a pandemic — and believe doling out sacks of cash leads to winning. The Dodgers are baseball’s best team. They are two wins from a championship. But they don’t just open the till and let the players grab Benjamins. They are a development machine that employs some of the sport’s sharpest intellects. They spend wisely.

Doubt that, and just look at Walker Buehler, the first draft choice for President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, back in 2015. Buehler took a no-hitter into the fifth inning of Game 3 of this World Series Friday night, striking out 10 Tampa Bay Rays and allowing just three hits in a 6-2 Dodgers’ victory that showed the entirety of their might — a homer, double and sparkling defense from third baseman Justin Turner (signed as a free agent), daring on the base paths from Mookie Betts (acquired in a trade), so much to enjoy.

But the following remains true: The Dodgers have not won the World Series in 32 years. They have spent, quite literally, billions of dollars on players since. They have no trophy.

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“We know how difficult this is,” Turner said Friday night. “We know there’s still a lot of work to do in front of us.”

Wait a few days? Perhaps. But there are financial lessons to be learned from this series — and perhaps a preview of what’s to come across the sport.

The Rays, of course, can’t match the Dodgers’ financial clout. While only the New York Yankees spent more than the Dodgers this year, just Pittsburgh and Baltimore spent less than Tampa Bay. The Rays’ entire payroll — due to be $58.3 million but prorated when the season was shortened to 60 games because of the novel coronavirus — sounds more like a player contract to other teams. The Dodgers paid A.J. Pollock $55 million for four years, Turner $64 million for four years, Kenley Jansen $80 million for five and Clayton Kershaw $93 million for three. They are one of the handful of teams that could commit $365 million over 12 years to a single player — as they did to outfielder Mookie Betts, who looks, at this point, like a bargain, with two more hits and two more steals in Game 3.

Whatever happens the next two nights at Globe Life Field, it is, actually, the Rays who could be previewing how teams will be built in years to come.

You think there aren’t owners — and, by extension, general managers — who are watching this series and thinking, “Why am I spending $160 million when I’m at home and a team that spent $100 million less is still playing ?” That has to be particularly true in the midst of the pandemic, when Major League Baseball drew in zero revenue from regular season fan attendance. Given the continued presence of the virus, not to mention the lack of a vaccine, who’s to say when fans will be able to pack ballparks shoulder-to-shoulder again?

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The offseason to come, then, will be one in which every dollar spent is scrutinized. Which means these Rays must be analyzed.

To be sure, they’re an outlier. They are the first team to win a pennant with a payroll ranked as low since — the 2008 Rays, who were also 28th. But there’s not a direct line between spending and reaching the World Series. In the wild-card era, which dates back to 2012, the top-spending team in the sport has won a pennant just twice.

Indeed, the World Series has featured teams with payroll ranks of 17 (Houston in 2017) and 18 (Cleveland in 2016, the New York Mets in 2015 and Kansas City in 2018). October is dotted with budget-conscious clubs. Yes, of the 80 playoff spots in the wild-card era — including the unwieldy 16 granted after this sprint of a season — more than half (46) went to teams that ranked in the top 10 in payroll, according to Spotrac, which tracks contracts across professional sports. But there also have been 19 berths by teams in the bottom third in spending — nearly one in five.

“You want to see teams find success in different ways,” Rays General Manager Erik Neander said before the series began. “That’s part of what makes the game what it is. I don’t think you ever want to see there be one particular cookie-cutter form of success in anything. That’s not what makes it fun.”

But it’s worth looking at how the Rays cut their cookies — and have for years. The last Tampa Bay team to reach the World Series was built, of course, by Friedman, then Tampa Bay’s GM, now finishing his sixth year with the Dodgers. What Friedman has done on the West Coast is based in the principles he instilled when he was back east — building deep, flexible rosters and concentrating on analytics and player development.

“A lot of it stems from really valuing guys who can do a lot of different things on a baseball field,” Friedman said before the series started. “And adding value on defense, on the bases, in the batter’s box.”

And lots of those players. The Dodgers are unusually versatile and uncommonly happy to employ platoons. Left-handed hitting Joc Pederson, for instance, almost never has to face a left-handed pitcher, to which he is allergic. Chris Taylor and Kike Hernandez can play second base or a corner outfielder spot. The center fielder, Cody Bellinger, can play first base. The right fielder, Betts, can play center. It never stops.

But that’s just a high-rent version of what the Rays have been doing for years — and a way a team looking to control costs might do so in the future. This postseason, Tampa Bay has employed 32 different players. In the first three games of the World Series, Manager Kevin Cash has used all 28 players on his roster. Several of the core players — center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, ace Blake Snell, shortstop Brandon Lowe — signed extensions with the team long before they reached free agency, none for more than Kiermaier’s $53 million.

“That’s what makes us the Rays,” Cash said. “We knew that coming in. 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.”

In the spring of 2015, Friedman was still adjusting from a world in which he had to search between the couch cushions for coins to one in which he found piles of money in every cupboard.

“One of the most challenging parts to being a large-revenue team is maximizing your chances to win in the current year while also maintaining the ability to sustain it over the long haul and not putting yourself in a position where you have a bunch of kind of mid-30-year-old players making a significant amount of money performing way below that figure,” Friedman told me back then. “So it sounds like a high-class problem. But it’s certainly a very real one for large-revenue teams.”

Hidden in there are principles that have guided both these teams to this World Series. But there’s also a message to the other 28 teams as they head into an offseason colored by the pandemic and an uncertain financial future: Spending not only won’t win you a World Series, but you don’t even have to spend to get here.