It’s fitting that the Rays and Dodgers are the ones playing in the 2020 World Series. Not only were they the best regular season teams during this unprecedented year, they’re also model franchises — albeit in very different ways.
At the low end of the payroll spectrum, you have the Rays, a team that ruthlessly trades away established stars and reliably develops new ones. They might not spend much, but from the front office to the coaching staff, this team’s always willing to embrace unconventional methods in a tradition-bound sport. That allows them to get the most out of their considerable talent despite their low budget. And with baseball’s best farm system, they aren’t going anywhere.
At the other end of the payroll spectrum, you have the Dodgers, a team run by longtime Rays executive Andrew Friedman. Thanks to a player development system that churns out stars year after year, the Dodgers have an enviable young core. But unlike the Rays, they can spend big to supplement their homegrown talent, retaining longtime stars like Clayton Kershaw while extending new ones like Mookie Betts. But for all of their resources, the Dodgers aren’t reckless with their prospects or their money. They’ve won their division eight times in a row
Either team would be a deserving champion after playing so well during an adversity-filled season, but of course only one will win the World Series. For the Dodgers, it would be their first championship since 1988. For the Rays, it would be their first in franchise history. Along the way, these questions will be answered on baseball’s biggest stage…
Can Kershaw create a new kind of playoff legacy?
Maybe you’ve heard by now, but Clayton Kershaw has a history of struggling in the playoffs. Okay, you’ve definitely heard. It’s been an ongoing October storyline for much of the last decade, so the consternation surrounding Kershaw’s playoff performance is nothing new.
What’s different is Kershaw now has a chance to change that narrative. Actually, multiple chances. Since Kershaw wasn’t needed in the Dodgers’ Game 7 NLCS win, he lines up to start Game 1 of the World Series. That would also allow him to start Game 5 against the Rays on regular rest and maybe even pitch out of the bullpen on two days’ rest in a potential Game 7.
Regardless of how the first 177.1 innings of Kershaw’s playoff career have unfolded (4.31 ERA, 193 strikeouts), he now has the opportunity to help the Dodgers win their first World Series in his lifetime. For a pitcher who has achieved everything possible on an individual level, a World Series ring is the only thing missing from a resume that’s already worthy of Cooperstown.
With that in mind, the next seven games have higher stakes for Kershaw than for anyone else.
Will Arozarena’s breakout continue?
If the playoffs have been a source of frustration for Kershaw, they’ve been the opposite for Randy Arozarena, the breakout star of the 2020 post-season. And where better to continue that emergence than in the World Series?
When the Rays sent minor leaguers Matthew Liberatore and Edgardo Rodriguez to St. Louis for Arozarena, Jose Martinez and a 2020 supplemental first-round pick, it was Martinez who appeared to be the headliner. That was back in January, and less than a year later, it’s already apparent that the Rays have pulled off another heist.
His regular season numbers were impressive enough – seven home runs with a 1.022 OPS in 23 games – but they pale in comparison to his post-season production. In 14 playoff games, the 25-year-old is hitting .382/.433/.855 with seven more home runs, three doubles and a triple.
Really, this looks like best-case scenario for the Rays. Immediate-term, Arozarena is playing his best baseball when it counts the most. And long-term, the Rays can look forward to years of production from a player whose bat appears to be legit.
What will the Dodgers get from Seager?
Right around the time the Rays were completing a trade for the future ALCS MVP, the Dodgers were contemplating a trade involving the eventual NLCS MVP. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Los Angeles discussed a three-team trade that would have sent Corey Seager to the Reds, Francisco Lindor to the Dodgers and prospects to Cleveland.
Ten months later, the Dodgers must be thrilled that deal didn’t come together. Nothing against Lindor, who had a good-if-not-great year, but Seager was exceptional in the regular season and has been even better in the playoffs (5 HR, 11 RBI, 1.230 OPS in NLCS). Plus, if the Dodgers had acquired Lindor in January, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have landed Mookie Betts a few weeks later.
Now, Seager’s peaking at the ideal time, and if he can build on his NLCS performance, the Dodgers will be thrilled. But unlike the Rays, the Dodgers are an exceptionally deep offensive team, so there’s no need to focus on a single player. If Seager falters, the likes of Betts, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner and Will Smith are all capable of being offensive difference makers, too.
For the Rays, what’s next?
In the afterglow of a World Series title, teams will so often bring back the players who brought them there.
A World Series win for the Nationals? Let’s bring back Stephen Strasburg, Daniel Hudson, Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera. Another championship for the Red Sox? Let’s make sure World Series heroes Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce aren’t going anywhere. Even the small market Royals found $72 million for Alex Gordon after their championship in 2015.
If the Rays win it all, something tells me they’ll handle things differently. First off, they don’t have a ton of free agents, with catcher Mike Zunino and right-hander Charlie Morton the only ones approaching the open market (Morton’s contract includes a $15-million option for 2020). But it’s hard to imagine the Rays getting sentimental about any players — including those who bring them to the World Series — so Zunino and Morton won’t get special treatment.
If anything, the Rays might even trade from their core. After all, the emergence of Arozarena gives them another potential star deserving of regular playing time. With so many candidates for playing time in the outfield and at DH, it's easy to imagine Yandy Diaz, Ji-Man Choi or Nate Lowe becoming a trade chip.
It’s ruthless, without a doubt, but the Rays didn’t get this far by making emotional decisions, and I honestly doubt they’re about to change that now.