It’s tired as shit, and if you’ve spent more than six consecutive minutes on Twitter you’ve already seen the two Spider-men pointing at each other at least 14 times. And yet, these types of things tend to be borne out of truth before they approach and then surpass the saturation point.
The Rays and Dodgers are of the same cloth. Though the more accurate way to convey this series through Spider-men is to have your original, Stan Lee Spider-man of the 60s pointing at Tom Holland’s tricked out Spidey with Stark Industries upgrades and systems.
Both Los Angeles and Tampa Bay are essentially Andrew Friedman creations. The Dodgers are run by Friedman and he came from Tampa, where he designed the self-aware development system the Rays have used to construct this team. The Rays are a product of expert drafting and even more expert scouting of other team’s systems, robust development through finding undervalued players and maximizing what those other teams couldn’t harvest. The Dodgers are all of that, but just with all the money in the world. And having that look allows them to augment their home-developed core and diamonds in the rough with players like Mookie Betts, just the second-best player in baseball the past five years, or getting to keep the kinds of talent the Rays can no longer afford and have to let go (or at least claim they do).
The quirk about this Series is that the Dodgers are actually more homegrown than the Rays, with 15 players on the roster that came through the system to the Rays’ seven. The feeling about the Dodgers is that they’re the best team money can buy, and that’s true, in that they’ve sunk an obscene amount of dough into their scouting and development which allows them to just run a pipeline of prospects to the majors. As far as lavishing obscene contracts on free agents, this team really doesn’t have much of that. Betts was acquired through trade, and then given one of those contracts, as the Dodgers were one of very few teams who would even consider it because they’re one of the few teams that could and would hand him what he’s worth. They could only do that because, thanks to their system-regeneration abilities, they don’t really pay too many other players that much yet.
Both teams have dug through the dumpsters of other teams and repolished players to be major contributors. The Dodgers’ Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Chris Taylor were low-level free-agent signings, whereas the Rays’ Ji-Man Choi, Randy Arozerena and others were merely non-news trades, throw-ins, or perhaps even forgotten parts.
Still, when Friedman was constructing his first version of the Rays that became contenders, the question was always, “Boy, what could he do with a team with money?” The answer is the Dodgers, an unholy hellbeast that will rack up playoff and World Series appearances until the heat death of the Earth (2027).
So, how will this go down?
With the return of a normal schedule for the World Series, meaning actual days off, the Rays’ pen can be unleashed full bore for pretty much the whole trial. Whereas in the previous series, the Rays had to step back in a game or two to keep all of their big weapons as fresh as possible. Because the Rays feature five dominant relievers, they also don’t risk, or risk as much, over-exposing any of them as the series goes along.
That doesn’t mean it’s not something the Rays can’t be aware of. Diego Castillo and John Curtiss had their yips against the Astros when making their third appearance or more. If this series goes six or seven as expected, and the Dodgers get more and more looks, the chances of a breakdown for Tampa increase. On the other side, the stuff of Curtiss, Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, Nick Anderson, and Ryan Thompson is so good that it might be able to withstand a high-level of exposure.
The other aspect that will have Rays fans rubbing their hands together fiendishly is that the Dodgers’ offense didn’t go Cirque-de-fireworks against the Braves. It wasn’t completely flaccid, but the Rays will fancy that their three starters of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Charlie Morton are better than anything the Braves could throw at the Dodgers. And thanks to the return of the normal schedule (i.e., two days off), they can throw all of them twice in the series if it goes long. With Glasnow set to start Game 1, Snell and Morton won’t even have to worry about pitching in relief or even warming up abnormally before starting Games 2 and 3.
Perhaps the other advantage the Rays have is the captain of the ship. While Dave Roberts has a habit of making the wrong decision at the worst time for a team that really shouldn’t need any steering at all, Kevin Cash has made far more right calls. There’s no way to guarantee that Roberts won’t haul Clayton Kershaw out of the pen yet again in a big moment, even if Kershaw needs a Rascal to get to the mound. Cash will likely not make any such mistake.
Well, if they’re the more advanced version of the Rays, naturally they’re the favorite. The Dodgers lineup, at least in potential and by the “back of the baseball card” metric, is some distance ahead of the Rays’. Whether or not Cody Bellinger’s NLCS-winning homer snaps him back into gear, he’s been off the boil all season, will be determined. But if it does, it makes the Dodgers go from scary to nightmarish.
There just isn’t a spot where a pitcher can breathe. Even against the Astros, the Rays didn’t have to quake when Josh Reddick or Martín Maldonado or Yuli Gurriel came to the plate. The Dodgers got game-turning homers from Will Smith and Kike Hernandez. Maybe A.J. Pollock and Chris Taylor are something close to breathers for pitchers, but both also have been weapons in the past. If anyone can break through the flame-thrower armed staff of the Rays, it’s the Dodgers.
The Dodgers’ rotation, nor pen, is as good as the Rays’, but it’s also not dealing with the same lineup that the Rays pitchers will have to face. Tampa strikes out a ton, and while the Dodgers — like the Astros — aren’t actually a strikeout-heavy staff, if the off-days allow them to pare down to their most effective pitchers, you could see them scythe through the Tampa lineup for stretches as they did to the Braves at the end of the NLCS.
Still, the Dodgers aren’t as well set-up as the Rays with only one day off. They can’t get back to Walker Beuhler until Game 3 at the earliest, leaving however Roberts treats Kershaw in Game 1, and then making it up as they go in Game 2. L.A. might have to dip into its pen more often and deeper than the Rays do much earlier, and it’s not as deep as Tampa’s. And that leaves Roberts with more decisions to make, and no Dodgers fan wants that.
The biggest difference between these two teams is that while the pressure on the Dodgers is now bordering on psychotic, it feels like this is their natural state, and due to their construction and operation this just another chance in a series of them. For the Rays, this feels like their one shot to come from the clouds and win the whole thing. That’s what happens when a GM like Friedman has money to play with, and when he doesn’t.