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The 2020 Rays Are Doing More With Less, Even More Than Usual

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Up two games to none on the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series, the Tampa Bay Rays are proving with every contest that they are not to be underestimated. Although the franchise had the sixth-most wins in baseball during the 2010s, it also struggled to make the playoffs — and on the rare occasions it did, it never advanced past the division series.

This year is already different. With an 82 percent probability of advancing to the World Series (according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast model), what very well could be the best Rays team ever is closing in on what might be the most special season in franchise history.

If the Astros are the villains of this league-championship round, in the wake of their well-documented cheating scandal, the Rays should be heroes to every underdog lover out there. As is customary for the franchise, Tampa Bay continues to do more with less: While the other three active playoff teams all ranked among the top half of MLB in payroll, according to Baseball-Reference.com — with Houston and Los Angeles finishing second and third, respectively1 — Tampa Bay had the second-lowest payroll in baseball this season, ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles.

Aside from center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who carries a $10.2 million price tag, the rest of the Rays’ top 15 players by wins above replacementour JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data every day this season.

“>2 cost a combined $17.3 million, or a little over $1.2 million per player in full-season payroll salary. By all rights, a team like this shouldn’t have been close to the playoffs at all, but Tampa Bay has long had a knack for unearthing hidden gems. Just a few current examples include selecting second baseman Brandon Lowe, the team’s 2020 WAR leader, 87th overall in the 2015 draft; finding ALDS hero Mike Brosseau as an undrafted free agent in 2016; and swindling Pittsburgh out of starter Tyler Glasnow and left fielder Austin Meadows in a now-infamous 2018 trade.

And those were just the players powering the Rays’ first-place AL East finish during the regular season. Even by its standards, Tampa Bay has outdone itself in this postseason. Take Randy Arozarena, for instance, the previously obscure Cuban outfielder who played only 23 regular-season games but boasts a team-leading3 1.359 OPS during the postseason. Or Manuel Margot, who had a regular-season OPS of just .679 (with one home run) and now owns a mark of .928 in the postseason (with three homers). The Rays have also leaned heavily on relievers Diego Castillo and Ryan Thompson, who combined for 0.5 WAR during the regular season but have allowed just two runs in 12⅔ innings so far under mostly high-pressure circumstances. The list goes on. Even after earning the AL’s top seed, the Rays couldn’t resist finding unheralded ways to win in the postseason.

Of course, Tampa Bay’s success hasn’t all come from unexpected sources. The Rays’ defense, second in WAR during the regular season only to the St. Louis Cardinals, has excelled at the routine plays — among teams that made the division series, only the Astros have a larger negative gap between their postseason ERA and fielding-independent pitching4 — and the difficult ones alike:

In large part because of this, Tampa Bay held an Astros lineup that had been averaging 6.7 runs per game through the first two rounds of the playoffs to just three total runs in the first two games of the ALCS, making Houston look more like the team that disappointed horribly for most of the year.

If the Rays do manage to hang onto the series against Houston, it would earn them just the second pennant in team history. The first? Led by Evan Longoria, Carlos Peña, James Shields and Melvin Upton Jr. (then known as B.J.), the 2008 Rays were a terrific story, improving by 31 wins after dropping the “Devil” from the team’s nickname. Though it ultimately ran into a World Series buzz saw in the form of the Philadelphia Phillies, that team enjoyed one of the best rags-to-riches runs in baseball history. But if we look at a variety of different metrics, this edition of the Rays is probably better than the 2008 version was:

Tale of the tape: best Rays team ever?

Comparing the 2008 and 2020 Tampa Bay Rays, by the numbers

2008 Rays Category 2020 Rays
1556 Elo rating* 1566
.590 Win percentage* .681
10th Batting WAR rank 10th
9th Base-running 3rd
6th Fielding 2nd
6th Pitching 5th
6th Starters 13th
7th Bullpen 4th
3rd Total WAR rank 3rd

*Includes postseason

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Obviously, the 2020 Rays haven’t advanced as far as the 2008 edition did … yet. And Houston has kept things relatively close in the series so far, despite its 2-0 deficit. In fact, the Astros have gotten plenty of runners on base against the Rays in the ALCS — they actually have a higher OPS in the series than Tampa Bay does (.736 to .614). Houston could easily be tied or even leading the series right now, if not for a few important breaks here and there.

But that’s the nature of postseason baseball. Instead, it’s Tampa Bay that has a great chance to represent the AL in the Fall Classic, much to the joy of most non-Houstonian observers across the nation. And as always — even as ALCS favorites — they’re doing it in classic scrappy Rays fashion.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

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Polling 101: What Happened To The Polls In 2016 — And What You Should Know About Them In 2020

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The results of the 2016 election came as a shock to many Americans. How could Donald Trump win the presidency when he was behind in the polls? As Election Day approaches in 2020, it once again looks like the Democratic candidate is in the lead. But can we really trust what pollsters are telling us? FiveThirtyEight database journalist Dhrumil Mehta explains why you shouldn’t give up on polling.

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Pogba’s United future: No Sanchez-style pay bump

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Paul Pogba’s Manchester United future is the subject of this week’s ESPN’s Insider Notebook. PLUS: Axel Tuanzebe shows captain material.

Jump to: Tuanzebe a United captain in waiting | Fabinho set for new Liverpool deal | Hazard warning for Madrid | Tuchel wanted Suarez, PSG said no | Bale’s golf course bail out | Euro League doesn’t worry elite leagues

United won’t break bank to keep Pogba

Manchester United have warned Paul Pogba they are not willing to give him a bumper pay rise to keep him at Old Trafford, sources told ESPN.

The club are keen to extend Pogba’s stay with a new long-term deal, but sources have said it will have to be a reasonable offer. After finally getting Alexis Sanchez off the books in the summer with his permanent move to Inter Milan, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are in agreement the wage structure will not be broken for any player, including Pogba.

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– Laurens: Pogba’s United troubles
– Dawson: Sanchez’s United nightmare

Sanchez still had two years left on his mammoth contract at United — worth around £400,000-a-week before bonuses — before he left and the club saved close to £40 million in wages by negotiating a deal with Inter and ending his stay early. Pogba would be given a pay rise on his £270,000-a-week deal if he signs a new contract, but intermediaries involved in preliminary talks have been clear that, despite Pogba’s high profile, Woodward and Solskjaer will not be offering extortionate wages to convince him to stay. A “Sanchez-style” contract is out of the question.

Sources said United are “relaxed” about Pogba’s future and Woodward remains open to allowing the 27-year-old to run into the final year of his deal if fresh terms cannot be agreed. United recently exercised their option to extend Pogba’s deal at the club until 2022. Based on that option the France international would be allowed to open negotiations with teams outside the Premier League from January 2022 and leave on a free the following summer.

Meanwhile, the player faces a battle to win back his place in Solskjaer’s team after being left on the bench for back-to-back victories against Newcastle and Paris Saint-Germain. Sources said Pogba hasn’t yet made a decision about where his future lies, although he has publicly courted interest from Real Madrid, saying during the international break it would be “a dream” to sign for the Spanish giants. Former club Juventus have also expressed interest in the past. — Rob Dawson

Mbappe silenced as Tuanzebe shows captain material

Axel Tuanzebe‘s impressive performance while marking Kylian Mbappe during Manchester United‘s 2-1 Champions League victory against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday was no surprise to United boss Solskjaer, who believes the 22-year-old is a future captain of the club due to his qualities on and off the pitch, sources told ESPN.

– Ogden: Mbappe silenced, Rashford a hero again

Solskjaer and his coaches have identified the need for the United squad to be more vocal and demanding of each other, and the signings this year of Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani have been made with that requirement factored in, with both players possessing the leadership qualities demanded by the manager.

But despite being restricted to fewer than 20 first-team appearances for United as a result of injury and two season-long loan spells at Aston Villa, Tuanzebe’s character and readiness to challenge his teammates has been noted by Solskjaer and senior figures at Old Trafford.

Tuanzebe captained United in the Carabao Cup win against Rochdale in September 2019, with Solskjaer handing the youngster the armband ahead of more experienced starters including Pogba, Phil Jones and Jesse Lingard.

Solskjaer justified the surprise decision at the time by saying: “It is just a way of telling Axel that we trust him,” but sources said that United’s faith in Tuanzebe runs much deeper and his leadership qualities, combined with his pace and his ability to read the game, mark him out to be a first-team regular and a player with the attributes to become captain in the long-term. — Mark Ogden

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ESPN FC’s Craig Burley says Solskjaer had the guts to make the moves that his PSG counterpart didn’t.

Fabinho set for Liverpool contract talks

Liverpool midfielder Fabinho is set for talks over a new deal after the Brazil international became a key player for Jurgen Klopp’s side, sources told ESPN.

Fabinho, 27, still has two years left on the contract he signed when he joined Liverpool from Monaco for €50m in 2018, but he has become such an important player that he is set to be rewarded with a new deal.

After joining on July 1, he didn’t make his first appearance until Sept. 18 and waited until Oct. 18 for his Premier League debut as Klopp integrated him into Liverpool’s culture and playing style. Since he secured a place in the team, though, he played a huge part in Liverpool winning the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League in 2020.

He has become one of Europe’s best holding midfielders and his versatility makes him indispensable to Liverpool, who used him at centre-back for the 1-0 Champions League win against Ajax on Wednesday with Virgil van Dijk ruled out through injury. — Julien Laurens

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Steve Nicol believes Liverpool players need to move on and put aside Virgil van Dijk’s absence.

Hazard warning for Real Madrid over injury fears

There’s growing concern at Real Madrid over Eden Hazard‘s latest injury setback, with the €100m forward facing another longer-than-expected layoff which could see him absent until after the next international break.

Hazard was last named in a matchday squad on Sept. 30 for Madrid’s La Liga game with Real Valladolid — due to be his first appearance of the season — but he was withdrawn hours before kick off with a muscular problem in his right leg. An initial diagnosis suggested he would miss three to four weeks, but coach Zinedine Zidane admitted this week that “his injury was a bit more than we thought.”

Since then, the Belgium international had been targeting Madrid’s Champions League clash with Inter on Nov. 3 for a return, but the club would prefer to wait rather than risk another relapse. That means Hazard might not feature until the trip to Villarreal on Nov. 22, after the upcoming round of international matches.

Hazard has suffered one injury blow after another — fracturing his ankle playing against Paris Saint-Germain last November and requiring surgery after a repeat of the same injury against Levante in February — since moving to the Bernabeu from Chelsea in 2019, describing last season as “the worst of my career” and facing repeated questions from the media over his form and fitness. — Alex Kirkland and Rodrigo Faez

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Ale Moreno wonders if Eden Hazard will go down as a bad signing for Real Madrid due to injury concerns.

Tuchel wanted Suarez, PSG said no

PSG coach Thomas Tuchel wanted to sign Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger and striker Luis Suarez from Barcelona during the summer transfer window as he looked to strengthen the Champions League finalists’ squad ahead of another tilt at European glory this season.

However, sporting director Leonardo was not keen and vetoed moves for both, much to the disappointment of Tuchel.

Sources told ESPN that the pair clashed over transfers during the summer window and tensions between the pair have increased after the club were beaten 2-1 at home by Manchester United in the Champions League on Tuesday.

A couple of weeks ago, Tuchel publicly moaned about the lack of arrivals, with Leonardo responding that he must “respect the choices of the sports management” amid speculation that Mauricio Pochettino and Massimiliano Allegri are options to replace Tuchel on the PSG bench.

Sources said that the manager thinks Leonardo didn’t do enough to strengthen PSG’s squad and doesn’t understand why the sporting director was not keen on Rudiger, who would have come on loan, and Suarez, who left Barca for free, so tensions continue. — Julien Laurens

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Frank Leboeuf reacts to the latest in a public feud between PSG manager Thomas Tuchel and director Leonardo.

Bale out, bail out: Welshman’s favourite golf course needs help

Gareth Bale‘s favourite Madrid golf course has had to be bailed out of financial trouble just weeks after its most high-profile customer left for a return to the Premier League with Tottenham.

Golf fanatic Bale was a regular at the swanky Golf Santander complex, near his home to the west of Madrid, during his seven-year stay in the Spanish capital. Bale was even reported to have taken to the greens in August while his then-Real Madrid teammates were preparing for a must-win Champions League knockout tie with Manchester City, after refusing to travel.

The 18-hole course in upmarket Boadilla del Monte was designed by the legendary, late Seve Ballesteros — winner of five majors — and has consistently been named one of Europe’s best.

Now its backer, Banco Santander, has approved a €9.1m capital reduction to compensate for losses caused by significant recent investment in the facilities, as well as 2020’s drop in international tourism.

A spokesman for the bank told ESPN the move was a “mere accounting adjustment” in the company that runs the course alongside its other sporting centres used by employees and the public. — Alex Kirkland and Rodrigo Faez

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Mark Ogden believes talks of a European Premier League are far too optimistic to be true at the moment.

Top leagues not troubled by European Premier League talk

UEFA, along with most leagues and clubs, were caught by surprise when news of a $6 billion (£4.6 billion) European Premier League broke on Wednesday, but sources told ESPN there is little concern among leagues about it. Instead, they see this as a unique opportunity to reshape the global football calendar.

The format of the Champions League for the 2024-27 cycle must be decided next year, with the biggest clubs wanting a larger slice of the financial riches, and to play more games against their top rivals from other leagues.

– Marcotti: How a Super League could happen

UEFA, which stands to lose most from a breakaway if its marquee clubs form a new competition, has condemned the idea of any kind Super League, calling it “boring.” But sources say it is aware that investment firms are circling around football as a relatively safe bet to recover from the coronavirus crisis. In Italy, Serie A is being heavily targeted by CVC Capital Partners and Advent International, who are working together to take a stake in the league’s commercial rights.

While the top clubs may be attracted to go their own way with the promise of a large payday, sources said the top leagues are confident a solution will be found that suits the game as a whole, and that any breakaway would jeopardise plans to find a wider solution.

With FIFA’s international match calendar due for renewal in 2024, along with the Champions League, there may not be another chance to reshape how club and international football fits together for many years.

Sources said that the World Leagues Forum, which represents 41 of the leading leagues around the world, has been in regular dialogue with FIFA and UEFA to discuss the calendar. Talks continue to find a solution for all, but they have not involved any breakaway from UEFA competition from the top clubs. — Dale Johnson

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Report: USC bans WR amid possible fraud probe

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A USC Trojans football player was suspended last month by the school in connection to a possible federal investigation into fraud related to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.

Sophomore wide receiver Munir McClain has been suspended since mid-September, his mother, Shan McClain told the Times. But she said the school has not given her or her son a clear reason for the suspension. Michael Blanton, USC’s vice president of ethics and professionalism, told Shan that Munir’s name surfaced in relation to a complaint that had been filed involving USC students and a plan to apply for Employment Development Department benefits, the Times reported.

Munir acknowledged he applied for financial relief from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program but was under the impression he qualified because his source of income — reselling high-end shoes — had dried up during the pandemic, the Times reported. A lawyer representing the McClain family told the Times they planned to challenge the suspension.

“We are cooperating with the authorities,” USC said in a statement. “We understand there may be many questions and concerns, but we are unable to discuss this matter because of our obligation to protect students’ privacy.”

Earlier this week, federal agents visited Munir’s dorm looking for his older brother and roommate, redshirt sophomore linebacker Abdul-Malik McClain, the Times reported. He wasn’t home, so an agent left behind a card that identified her as a special agent with the U.S. Department of Labor-Office of Inspector General and Office of Labor Racketeering and Fraud Investigations.

The Times reported that other USC football players have recently received similar visits from federal agents inquiring about Munir McClain.

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