Clayton Kershaw has picked a great time to enter into contract re-negotiations with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Actually, the negotiations started back in spring training but, despite Kershaw originally saying he didn't want them to continue once the regular season started if no deal was struck, they appear to be ongoing.
According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, there is already a strong sense that Kershaw will be the first pitcher to get a contract worth at least $200 million and a baseball official is quoted as saying "I hear they're already over $200 million."
It should be pointed out that Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Tmes wrote on April 2 that there was no deal imminent between Kershaw and the Dodgers. Of course, these things can turn in a hurry, so all we can really say is stay tuned.
Let's just start with the $200 million mark and what that would mean. The two biggest contracts signed by pitchers happened this offseason.
Just a few weeks later, Justin Verlander signed a five-year extension with the Detroit Tigers that will be tacked on to the two years he has left on a deal he agreed to before the 2010 season. The total value of those contracts guarantees the 2011 Cy Young winner and AL MVP $180 million over the next seven years, with a $22 million option for 2020.
Any long-term extension for a pitcher is risky due to the nature of the position, but if anyone in baseball has earned the right to be called the richest starter in history, it would be Justin Verlander.
Even at 30 years old, Verlander has proven himself to be incredibly durable—he has thrown at least 200 innings and made at least 32 starts in six consecutive seasons—and consistent with an ERA of 3.45 or lower and more than 200 strikeouts in the last four years.
Using Verlander's extension as the barometer, it is easy to see why Kershaw would have a great case to be the highest paid pitcher in baseball if/when he signs an extension with the Dodgers.
It also helps that we know the Dodgers are going to spend any amount of money if they feel it will improve their chances to win a World Series. In the last 12 months, they have added $111 million to the payroll with the additions of Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Brandon League and Zack Greinke.
Magic Johnson, who is part of the ownership group that bought the Dodgers last year, said during the team's season opener against San Francisco, in which Kershaw threw a complete game shutout and hit a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning, the left-hander will be the highest paid pitcher in baseball.
It is a terrible negotiating tactic, made worse by the fact that Johnson actually called Kershaw their "Sandy Koufax of today."
There are two key factors that have to be considered when looking at a long-term extension for a baseball player, especially a pitcher: Age and durability.
Kershaw was brought to the big leagues in 2008 at the age of 20, so even though he has been around for a long time, he just turned 25 on March 19. It is remarkable what the southpaw has accomplished already despite being just one year older than Chicago's Chris Sale.
Certainly, if you were banking on one of these three pitchers (Verlander, Hernandez, Kershaw) to hold their value through an entire length of a contract, you would have to say Kershaw just because he has age on his side. Verlander is the oldest of the group at 30, with Hernandez second at 27 years old.
The resumes for Verlander, Kershaw and Hernandez are remarkably similar. All three have won a Cy Young award, though Verlander is the only one with an MVP award. All three have proven to be incredibly reliable, making at least 30 starts every full season of their careers. (Verlander debuted late in the 2005 season and made two starts.) All three have consecutive seasons of at least 200 strikeouts—Verlander and Hernandez are at four, while Kershaw is at three entering 2013.
Looking at durability throughout his career so far, Kershaw has been as safe as any pitcher in baseball since his first full season in 2009. He has made at least 30 starts in four straight years, including 98 over the last three years, and thrown at least 200 innings with over 200 strikeouts every year since 2010.
But the point of a new contract—or at least what the point should be--is to pay for future value, not what a player has already done. That is where baseball is different from a sport like, say, football.
The NFL, aside from having contracts that are terrible for the players since they can be released on a dime and are always forced to re-negotiate due to the salary cap, tends to pay for what a player will do in the future.
Which pitcher deserves to be the highest paid in MLB?
Major League Baseball teams tend to pay players based on what they have already done. There is no rational argument for the Yankees giving Alex Rodriguez, heading into his age-32 season, a new 10-year, $275 million deal in December 2007, or the Angels giving Albert Pujols his own 10-year contract heading into his age-32 season before 2012.
Kershaw is one of the rare exceptions where the team giving the extension—in this case, the Dodgers—would be paying for a lot of peak years and a few declining years.
You do worry about mileage on Kershaw's arm at such a young age. Through his first two starts in 2013, the Dodgers' ace has thrown 15,408 pitches in his career (via Fangraphs).
While you have to take every case differently, there are a limited number of pitches in an arm before the wear and tear starts to settle in. Throwing a baseball is an unusual act because of all the stress and torque put on an arm, and it is being done 100 times every five days by the typical starting pitcher.
But until you have some physical evidence that Kershaw is slowing down, the risk of a long-term extension is much lower than it would be for a pitcher older than he is with the same amount of mileage on his arm.
Kershaw's fastball velocity is down a tick this year compared to where it was in 2012 (93.2 to 92.6), via Fangraphs, but he has just made two starts and it can take time for a pitcher to build his arm back up to where it usually is.
So yes, there is a very strong, very real case to be made that Kershaw's extension, whenever he signs it, is more than justified at being over the $200 million mark that Heyman's source is hearing.
That is not a slap in the face of Verlander, who is still regarded as the best pitcher in baseball and will be until he shows he isn't. It is a testament to how well timed Kershaw's negotiations are, how much money the Dodgers are willing to spend and the ever-expanding market for starting pitchers in baseball.
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