Is Clayton Kershaw Worth the Biggest Pitcher Contract in MLB History?
C.C. Sabathia is currently the highest-paid pitcher in MLB history, mid-way through a seven-year, $161 million contract with the New York Yankees. That is approximately $23 million per year for the big, burly lefty. And in today's market, he deserves every penny of it.
But the question today isn't about guys who already signed a fat deal. It's about the best young lefty in all of baseball: Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Last season, Kershaw pulled off a rare feat, winning the pitching version of the Triple Crown (leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA). With his 21-5 record, 2.28 ERA and 248 Ks, he was a no-brainer to win the Cy Young.
Kershaw is currently on a somewhat-cheap contract with the Dodgers, signed through 2013 at just $9.5 million per year. That is only because he's still so young (24) that he's stuck in his arbitration years.
Now, the Dodgers already locked up star outfielder Matt Kemp long-term, and Kershaw must be next on the list. They don't want to lose him to another team when he's eligible for free agency, and now with new owners in place, they should be throwing some of their new-found riches Kershaw's way.
But is the young lefty worth the richest pitcher contract in MLB history? Could Kershaw find his name inked to the first $200 million contract for a pitcher?
Yes and yes. And here's why.
1. His Age
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As mentioned in the previous slide, Kershaw is just 24 years old. Most starting pitchers don't even see the big leagues until they are that age, but Kershaw already has 769 innings logged in the MLB, just short of about four full seasons.
The fact that he's had so much experience at such a young age is priceless, especially with two postseason stints to go with it. He's had great success, and has a legitimate shot at 300 wins if healthy.
Why wouldn't you want to make money rain on a guy who is a young, talented AND smart lefty? Most pitchers start to decline in their mid-30s. The elite ones can sometimes push it to the late 30s or just north of 40.
Using that assumption, I believe Kershaw, barring injury, can be an ace for at least 10 to 12 more seasons. So is he worth a 10-year deal? It's unprecedented, but yes. Absolutely. And that lucky team would be getting one of the game's best through the prime years of his career.
Kershaw is a fantastic athlete who has never had major injury problems. He'll be on the mound every fifth game. Oh, did I mention the 2011 Gold Glove winner can field his position too?
2. Early Success
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Again, Kershaw is just 24, but he has already racked up a career win total more than double his age. Having 50 wins at this point in his career is ridiculous, especially when you consider it's only against 29 losses. He's pitched 200 innings in each of the last two seasons and seems to be on track to eclipse that number again in 2012.
Even more impressive is the fact that Kershaw has improved in every statistical category every single year. Whether it be wins, strikeouts, ERA, WHIP, walks or anything in between, the numbers get better and better as the years go on.
That kind of improvement isn't a fluke, and it can't be ignored. This is a game that is supposed to give players streaks and slumps, but Kershaw is so good, he's mostly avoided any kind of dip in production. His career ERA is 2.83 and WHIP is 1.15, and those will only improve.
Not to mention, he is as close to a lock as there can be for 15 wins, 200 or more strikeouts and 200 or more innings every single season. That's the kind of production you want out of an ace.
Any team who signs Kershaw long-term is getting a Cy Young winner with the potential to win many more awards as his career progresses. There is a reason he's been compared to Sandy Koufax already.
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The Dodgers' young lefty possesses another rare combination that has nothing to do with physical talent. He is an old-school, hard-nosed gamer on the mound, a great teammate off the mound and a hardcore humanitarian in the offseason.
Every winter, Kershaw and his wife make a trip to Africa to help orphans who are hindered by the AIDS epidemic. Believe it or not, there is something to be said for good people playing ball. Just ask Milton Bradley. It usually doesn't work out for the guys with bad attitudes.
And Kershaw carries over the good vibes to the mound. He's a really smart pitcher who knows how to work counts and knows exactly what to throw in certain situations. Even in his contract negotiations, he's admitted to all but ignoring the business side of baseball. To translate: nothing distracts him from his game.
Don't let the nice-guy persona fool you, though. Kershaw has a mean streak and will throw high and tight at batters that need to be backed off, and he'll ignite feuds between rivals if necessary (see the Arizona Diamondbacks and Ian Kennedy).
You can count on Kershaw to be an ace on the mound who will intimidate the opponent but will be a role model off the field and a great teammate when he's not playing. That is worth a hefty investment when it comes to signing a long-term deal.
4. Today's Market
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Another thing we must factor in when answering these questions is the current market. If you don't think pitchers can make the big bucks, just ask Matt Cain. Now, Cain is a very talented pitcher, but his numbers are nowhere near Kershaw's.
So if you factor in Kershaw's age, success, and the fact that he's a lefty, and then multiply it by the way teams spend money in bunches these days, you're looking at a soon-to-be very wealthy young pitcher. Especially if the newly-rich Dodgers are the front-runners when free agency comes (or if they re-sign him before free agency hits).
In a day and age when players are making $30 million per season, Sabathia is leading the way for starters at a $23 million annual salary. Conventional logic says that based on all the above factors, Kershaw is the better bet for a long-term deal.
While I think that Kershaw will eclipse the $23 million per season Sabathia is making (therefore, receiving the biggest pitcher's contract in MLB history), a $200 million contract is a whole different beast.
Personally, I think he's worth the 10-year risk. It would be the first contract of it's kind for a pitcher, but nothing would surprise me these days. At worst, a team should be offering an eight-year deal for Kershaw. And at $24 or $25 million a year, we could be looking at just under $200 million.
Prediction: The Dodgers re-sign their ace halfway through the 2013 season for eight years and $24.5 million per season, for a total of $196 million.