The Los Angeles Dodgers Need to Pay Clayton Kershaw Like the Best Lefty in MLB

Geoff RatliffContributor IIINovember 7, 2012

The Los Angeles Dodgers Need to Pay Clayton Kershaw Like the Best Lefty in MLB

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    Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has solidified his status as the MLB’s best left-handed pitcher, and he deserves to finally be paid like it.  

    Fellow left-handed starters C.C. Sabathia, Cole Hamels, David Price and Gio Gonzalez are all stars in their own right. However, Kershaw’s combination of age, skill, durability and pedigree makes him the clear favorite if you need one lefty to anchor your rotation today.

    Kershaw is entering the final year of a two-year, $19 million contract he agreed to last winter.

    While he can’t technically become a free agent until after the 2014 season, the Dodgers would be stupid to let his long-term contract status linger into the start of Spring Training.

    Ever since Guggenheim Baseball Management took control of the Dodgers last spring, they’ve consistently demonstrated that money would not be an obstacle to building a winning team.  

    Andre Ethier received a five-year, $85 million contract extension in June. Los Angeles also signed Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig to a seven-year, $42 million contract—the richest free agent contract ever for a player from that country. 

    While those signings were encouraging, the Dodgers upped the ante in July and August with a series of mind-blowing trades.

    Los Angeles acquired nine new players in five separate deals—including former All-Stars Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford—adding over $400 million to the payroll in the process. 

    The Dodgers have already re-signed relief pitcher Brandon League to a three-year, $22.5 million contract this offseason.

    All-Star center fielder Matt Kemp received his eight-year, $160 million contract extension last offseason, while the team was still in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings.

    With all the money that has been handed out in Los Angeles over the past year, Kershaw has to be wondering when his payday is coming.

    Aside from the enormous amounts of money being spent by Dodgers ownership, there are several more practical reasons why Kershaw is due for a record-breaking contract extension.

    Here are the four primary factors that will soon make him the highest-paid left handed pitcher in Major League Baseball.

Durability

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    Dodgers chairman Mark Walter expressed reservations about giving out expensive, long-term contracts to pitchers last month when he famously stated that “pitchers break.” Walter also acknowledged, however, that pitchers are still very much necessary and Los Angeles is willing to spend money on the right player.

    While Walter was specifically referring to free agents, the pitcher that the Dodgers need most is already anchoring their starting rotation.

    Kershaw just finished his seventh season with the Dodgers—and his fifth at the major league level—since they selected him with the seventh overall pick of the 2006 MLB amateur draft. If it is, indeed, better to go with the Devil you know, then know pitcher is a more known quantity to the organization than Kershaw.

    In the four full seasons he’s been in the starting rotation, he’s made at least 30 starts in every season. Kershaw has also pitched more than 200 innings in each of the last three years, averaging more than 230 innings over the last two seasons.

    He pitched 227.2 innings in 2012, despite missing two starts in September with a hip ailment. Kershaw was in jeopardy of missing the rest of the season with the injury, but he pitched through the pain to help the Dodgers during their playoff push.

    Los Angeles received good news last month when it was determined that Kershaw's hip would not require offseason surgery.

    With his track record of durability and willingness to pitch through injury, Kershaw has the traits of a player that the Dodgers should invest in long-term. 

Age

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    Major league baseball teams aren’t going to stop giving out lucrative long-term contracts, despite mounting evidence suggesting the risk involved with such deals (see Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez).

    With their new-found financial resources and mega-TV deal on the horizon, the Dodgers are no different in this regard.

    If teams insist on spending big, however, they should, ideally, invest their money in young players with clean bills of health and a solid track record of performance. Those players are admittedly rare, but Kershaw is the gold standard by which all others should be measured.

    I’ve already highlighted his durability and will provide more details about his statistics later, but Kershaw has been the model of consistency for the Dodgers throughout his five-year career. 

    Outside of his 2008 rookie campaign, he has never made less that 30 starts, struck out less than 185 batters, had an ERA higher than 2.91 or a WHIP worse than 1.23. 

    His WAR (wins against replacement) increased for three straight years between 2009 and 2011 (4.5 to 5.4 to 6.3), and his 2012 WAR matched last year’s number.

    Kershaw has accomplished all of this by the age of 24.

    If ever a player was worth an eight-to-ten year deal in excess of $200 million, he would be your guy. 

    He’s younger than Joey Votto (28), Prince Fielder (28) and Albert Pujols (31) were at the time they signed their $200 million deals. 

    Kershaw is also more than four years younger than lefty Cole Hamels—who signed a six-year, $144 million extension with the Philadelphia Phillies last summer—and this winter’s biggest free-agent pitcher Zack Greinke, who turned 29 in October.

    The only other young left-handers in Kershaw’s stratosphere are San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner (23) and Chicago White Sox reliever-turned-starter Chris Sale (23). 

    Bumgarner’s numbers don’t come close to those of Kerhsaw, despite two World Series titles in his brief career. Sale was very much in the AL Cy Young award conversation for much of the year, but he has only one season of experience as a major league starter.

    Even American League Cy Young hopeful David Price, at 27, is nearly three years older than Kershaw and has the same amount of MLB experience.

    Kershaw won’t turn 25 until March—right before the start of his sixth season in the majors.

Pedigree

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    Kershaw isn’t just young and durable, he’s really, really good.  

    In 2011, at age 23, he became the youngest NL Cy Young award winner since Doc Gooden, at age 20, won the award in 1985 with the New York Mets. Kershaw is again among the favorites—along with another Met, R. A. Dickey—to win the award this year.  

    Kershaw has had a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the last four seasons, leading MLB in the category in each of the last two years (at 2.28 and 2.53 respectively). His 2.79 ERA in 2009 was the best among all left-handed starters in the majors. 

    Along with being one of the most difficult pitchers to score runs off of, Kershaw is one of the hardest pitchers to reach base against.

    He has struck out more than 200 batters in each of the last three seasons, leading the National League in 2011 with 248. He finished second in the NL to Dickey this season with 229, still good for the fourth-best total in all of baseball.

    Kershaw finished tied with Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels for the MLB-lead in WHIP at 1.02 this past season. He finished second to 2011 AL Cy Young award winner, and league MVP, Justin Verlander with a 0.98 WHIP last year. 

    He has also finished second in the majors in opponent’s batting average against each of the last two seasons. His .210 trailed fellow NL lefty Gio Gonzalez in 2012, and he trailed only Verlander in 2011 with a .207 mark. 

    I could go on for days with statistics supporting Kershaw’s case, but I think you get the point.

    Clayton Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in baseball, period, and as a left-hander, he has no peer.

The Market

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    When Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels signed his contract extension in July, he redefined the market for elite starting pitchers.

    Kershaw’s significant edge in age and his Cy Young pedigree will allow him to easily surpass both the years and annual salary on Hamels’ deal. 

    He may not reach $30 million per year, but Kershaw will almost certainly become the first $200 million pitcher in MLB history.

    Hamels turns 29 this December and New York Yankees lefty C.C. Sabathia—who actually has the highest annual salary of any left-hander at $24.4 million per year—turned 32 in July. Their contracts make an eight-year, $200 million contract a very reasonable starting point for Kershaw, and the number could easily go higher.

    Thanks to new, incredibly lucrative TV contracts, revenues across Major League Baseball continue to climb, giving teams more money than ever to spend on player salaries.

    Kershaw’s contract status comes at a perfect time for a player of his unique combination of talent. 

    Frankly, Major League Baseball hasn’t seen a left-handed starter this good and this young in today’s free-agent market.

    The Dodgers would be foolish to let Kershaw become the first.