When you’re looking for the exact opposite edge of the financial spectrum in major league baseball for teams looking to contend in 2013, you’ll not going to find a more divergent pairing than the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Dodgers shook the baseball world this offseason by signing Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Brandon League to big free agent contracts, an impressive follow-up to a 2012 season that saw them acquire Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford at the August 31st waiver trade deadline in a trade with the Red Sox that’s already one of the most polarizing in history. The Rays, meanwhile, actually won more games than the Dodgers in 2012, 90 compared to 86, but they spent this offseason trading off two critical pieces of their ballclub, James Shields and Wade Davis, first and foremost to get four talented prospects headlined by Wil Myers but with their elevated salaries certainly a major consideration, and instead of signing the big-name free agents, the Rays were shopping in the bargain bin as they looked to refurbish their major league team for what they hope will be another big season that will bring them back to the playoffs. The strategies of the Dodgers and Rays could not be any more different. But there is one big thing the two teams have had in common over the past several months: a surplus of starting pitchers. Despite all the other ways their ballclubs differ, have the Dodgers and Rays shown similar thought processes in their handling of their rotation surpluses?
Here’s a quick chart comparing the Rays’ starting pitchers to the Dodgers. Obviously a lot of things will be different, but let’s see what’s the same.
(Note that “Age” is seasonal age for the 2013 season and “Free Agency Year” is the year following their last season under contract, counting all option years.)
Comparing the two groups of pitchers, obviously the money is completely different and any comparison we try to make is flimsy as best. Both rotations have young ace lefties in David Price and Clayton Kershaw, another promising lefty still looking to establish himself in the big leagues in Moore and Ryu, and an enigmatic middle-aged righty in Hernandez and Josh Beckett, and maybe we can stretch and compare Niemann to Billingsley as pitchers who have shown talent in the past but are coming off injuries. But when we go back to where the Rays rotation was early this offseason, before the big Shields trade, the comparison is a little more compelling.
David Price and Clayton Kershaw are both dominant ace left-handers making their first big payday this season as they reached an eight-figure salary for the first time. Shields and Greinke are high-priced veteran right-handers a clear step who have never quite established themselves as true aces except for one great season (Greinke in 2009 and Shields in 2011) but are clear frontline arms with the ability to be a second ace in the rotation. Hellickson and Billingsley are talented right-handers who still need to prove they can sustain their past performance, Hellickson because of his peripheral statistics and Billingsley because of his injury concerns. Moore and Ryu are both young lefties with the ability to become very good pitchers right now but who still have much to prove. Niemann and Beckett are right-handers who were really good not that long ago and are struggling to become the pitchers they once were. Cobb and Capuano are solid middle-of-the-rotation arms but lack the upside of the guys around them. Davis and Harang are right-handers who showed quite a bit of ability in the past but took a step back and may not be worth their salary anymore (as the Rays showed by trading Davis). Archer and Lilly are awfully hard to compare, but both are pitchers with talent with questions remaining over whether they’ll be able to contribute in the major leagues this season, with Archer still needing to work on his control and changeup and Lilly needing to stay healthy. So what does this tell us? Simply that we can make a halfway-decent comparison between these two starting staffs or at least between where they were earlier this offseason. But we still haven’t answered our question: have the Dodgers and Rays carried out similar strategies in the handling of their rotation surpluses?
The knee-jerk reaction to that question is that the Rays and Dodgers’ strategies could not be any more different- after all, the Rays traded away Shields and Davis while the Dodgers added Greinke and Ryu. That’s certainly a key difference between the Rays and Dodgers- the Rays have to fight to remain competitive despite major budgetary constraints while the Dodgers are willing to spend as much as it takes to make their team one of the best in baseball. But the mindset behind all the moves both teams made this offseason were actually very similar. Why could the Rays trade Shields and Davis? Because they believed that Hellickson and Moore could step up to become at least a solid number two and number three in their rotation and that Moore had the ability to expedite his development and become a second ace alongside Price before they knew it. The Dodgers added Greinke and Ryu to secure the number two and number three spots in their starting staff while the Rays traded away Shields knowing that they had that and needing to address other needs. But the comparison stretches farther than that.
Both teams had solid rotations even after the Shields trade for the Rays and after the Greinke signing for the Dodgers, but both teams felt the need to sign one more starter, Hernandez for the Rays and Ryu for Los Angeles. Obviously Ryu is a much better insurance policy considering that he’s been dominating in Korea while Hernandez hasn’t been any good since 2010, but both teams saw the risk in the players they had, with the Rays worrying about how unproven their rotation was while the Dodgers were primarily concerned with the potential for injury on their staff. And even though both teams have eight strong rotation candidates, neither are rushing to trade their back-end guys, with other teams having interesting in the Rays’ Niemann and the Dodgers’ Harang but nothing likely to happen until at least the end of spring training when both teams have their starting five firmed up.
The Dodgers will spend around 80 million dollars on their rotation even if there’s a trade while the Rays will spend under 20 million dollars. But the thought process of the two teams is extremely similar: prioritize getting a strong top three in their rotation, sign additional depth when the opportunity arises, and don’t make a trade except when you’re absolutely sure that you have sufficient pitchers remaining to keep from losing a beat. None of those ideas is that crazy- I’m sure every team in baseball would love to get an amazing rotation with a dynamite top three and ridiculous depth, and also have the luxury of trading a starting pitcher at their terms- but the way both the Rays and Dodgers place a premium on starting pitching in a very similar way is pretty staggering. The two teams work in completely different ways- the Rays have made their rotation one of the best in baseball through a series of excellent draft picks and trades while the Dodgers have done so by spending money like crazy- but the end result is the same even in the process is extremely different.
The Rays and Dodgers will take on each other in a three-game series at Dodger Stadium from August 9th to 11th, and fans will see two teams who work in entirely different financial stratospheres. But when the pitchers take the mound and go up against one another, the results for the two pitchers could be incredibly similar. Although you can’t predict baseball and it’s far too early to tell, there’s a great chance that the games will be pitchers’ duels heading right down the wire. That’s not meant as praise of the Rays’ ability to work with a small payroll or disdain to what the Dodgers have done with their large one- just a statement to how the minds behind two of the best teams in baseball work alike even when their financial realities couldn’t be any more at odds.