Warning: If you are a fan of the Phillies and you want to know how the two 2020 World Series teams were built, this story could sicken you. Read on only if you have a strong stomach and a thirst for knowledge.
Before we examine the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays and the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers, let’s first revisit what is sure to hold up as John Middleton’s most memorable quote of this offseason about the Phillies' 100-year struggle to evaluate talent.
“We haven’t produced the talent yet and that’s a problem that has haunted us," the Phillies managing partner said during the Zoom call that announced the end of the Matt Klentak era as general manager. "It was the No. 1 mandate I gave [team president] Andy [MacPhail] and Matt when they came in. We’ve improved, we’re better than we were, but we aren’t nearly good enough. Matt’s had a pretty successful track record with free agents. We just haven’t been able to bring up the people internally to support them. You can’t build a championship team around free agents and we just didn’t have the internal players coming up to really field the competitive team that we needed.”
Middleton is not wrong to criticize the draft, but it could easily be argued that the Phillies have drafted every bit as well or, to be more precise, as poorly as Tampa Bay since 2010. The Rays' best picks to reach the major leagues since that draft are center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (a 31st-rounder in 2010), pitcher Blake Snell (a supplemental first-rounder in 2011), and second baseman/outfielder Brandon Lowe (a third-round pick in 2015). Lefty Josh Fleming (a fifth-round pick in 2017) looks like another hit, but the draft is not the primary reason the Rays have returned to the World Series for the first time since their 2008 loss to the Phillies.
After joining the analytics age at Middleton’s behest following the 2015 season, it became popular to use the phrase “value at the margins.” The Rays, who have not had a payroll above the bottom four in baseball since 2012, are bursting with that kind of value, exhausting all avenues to not just be competitive but also consistent contenders. Since 2010, the Rays have won 90 games or more six times and, at 40-20, they were the best team in the American League this season.
It started with Andrew Friedman, who was the team’s general manager from November 2005 through the 2014 season and is now in charge of baseball operations with the Dodgers. It continued under Matt Silverman and Eric Neander, who now jointly run baseball operations for the Rays. It has helped that they also hit the jackpot with first Joe Maddon and now Kevin Cash as their managers.
Consider this list of value-at-the-margin moves by the Rays:
So much value at the margins.
Examine the 2020 Phillies roster and probably the best “value-at-the-margin” player was Phil Gosselin. While the Rays were also making a ton of great trades for prospects, it’s difficult to think of similar deals made by the Phillies during their self-confessed rebuilding period from 2014 through 2018. The best of the bunch was probably the December 2014 deal that brought them Zach Eflin from San Diego as part of the trade that sent Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers.
One final note on the Rays: Baseball America also rated them as having the best farm system in baseball before this season, thanks in large part to international players Wander Franco and Vidal Brujan. Franco, a 19-year-old shortstop, is the top-rated prospect in baseball. The Phillies were ranked 19th, but give the system credit for graduating Alec Bohm, who emerged as one of the best rookies in baseball in 2020.
The Dodgers, of course, have the benefit of one of the highest payrolls in baseball almost every year. They are, nevertheless, a team that has been built largely through the draft. In fact, the Dodgers' entire starting rotation is homegrown and with a 3.29 ERA, it was the best in the National League this season. That’s impressive, especially given the fact that they have not made a pick higher than 15th since 2006.
Clayton Kershaw (seventh overall) was their first-round pick in 2006 and nobody has been better from that draft class. They took Walker Buehler in the first round of the 2015 draft, 14 picks after the Phillies selected Cornelius Randolph. Rookies Dustin May (third round) and Tony Gonsolin (ninth round) were taken in the 2016 draft and lefty Julio Urias, signed just after he turned 16 in 2012, has become the Dodgers' best signing out of Mexico since Fernando Valenzuela.
Four of the Dodgers' regulars are homegrown players. Shortstop Corey Seager was taken 18th overall in the first round of the 2012 draft, which was a bust year for the Phillies. Cody Bellinger went in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, which was the year the Phillies took J.P. Crawford 16th overall. Joc Pederson was taken in the 11th round of the 2010 draft. Third-round catcher Cameron Rupp was the best player the Phillies selected in that draft. Dodgers catcher Will Smith, who is in his first season as their starter, was taken 32nd overall in the Dodgers' talent-rich 2016 draft. That, of course, is the year the Phillies took Mickey Moniak first overall.
In addition to their outstanding drafts, the Dodgers have taken advantage of their hefty payrolls while also executing value-at-the-margin moves under both Friedman and former GM Ned Colletti. The Dodgers, of course, are making their third World Series appearance in four years but are trying to win for the first time since 1988.
L.A. had both the talent to acquire 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts from Boston and the payroll power to sign him to a 12-year deal worth $365 million. The Phillies, of course, had the ability to acquire J.T. Realmuto from Miami, but we are still waiting to see if they can sign him to a long-term deal. The Dodgers also have outfielder AJ Pollock under contract for two more years and he matched Betts' 16 home runs this season.
As for value-at-the-margin moves, the Dodgers signed Justin Turner for $1 million before the 2014 season and he has hit .302 with a .382 on-base percentage and an .886 OPS over the last seven seasons for them. Did we mention that the Dodgers probably have the two best super-utility players in the game in Chris Taylor and Kiké Hernandez? They were both acquired in trades.
And did we mention that the Dodgers, like the Rays, made a bunch of shrewd trades and free-agent acquisitions to build the best bullpen in the National League?