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Dodgers Cannot Afford to Play Game of Chicken with Clayton Kershaw

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Dodgers Cannot Afford to Play Game of Chicken with Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in Major League Baseball, and one way or another, he's going to be paid as such soon. Just ask his team's owner.

The Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander had a season for the ages in 2013, leading the majors for the third straight year with a 1.83 ERA and topping the National League in strikeouts for the second time in three seasons. After winning this year's Players Choice Award as the NL's Outstanding Pitcher on Monday, it's a mere formality that Kershaw will be taking home his second Cy Young Award this month.

He's done all of this, by the way, at the tender age of 25.

And yet, Kershaw is now less than 12 months from reaching free agency after the 2014 season. At that point, all 30 teams would be able to bid on the top arm in baseball, who not only is among the most decorated and accomplished pitchers in the game, but also smack dab in the middle of his prime.

No wonder he's intrigued by the possibilities.

"I think [for] any player, that's the reward of baseball, to make it to that point," Kershaw said of the prospect of reaching free agency, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. "I think any player gets curious when you get close, for sure."

From a business standpoint, that's a smart line from a guy who has a heck of a lot of leverage at the moment, even if he did let this slip to Hernandez about the city of Los Angeles: "I love it here."

You see, in addition to all of the awards and accolades and his pending free agency, Kershaw has even more stacked in his corner.

Harry How/Getty Images
Dodgers part owner Magic Johnson wants to keep Kershaw in blue and white for a long time.

For one, Dodgers part owner Magic Johnson told Buster Olney of ESPN (via Cork Gaines of Business Insider) before Opening Day that Kershaw is an invaluable asset to any team:

He's our Sandy Koufax of today. That's how important he is. We feel he is the best pitcher in all of baseball. And when you are the best, you gotta be paid the best. We understand that.

To put things in context, the largest contract ever given to a pitcher belongs to Justin Verlander of the Tigers, who signed a seven-year, $180 million contract last March that could turn into an eight-year, $202 million deal if he finishes among the top five in the 2019 Cy Young Award voting.

That contract topped the seven-year, $175 million deal signed a little more than a month earlier by Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez.

The largest amount ever handed out to a left-hander? Well, that goes to CC Sabathia, who landed $161 million over seven years from the New York Yankees after the 2008 season.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
CC Sabathia's $161 million deal is the biggest for a lefty. Kershaw could get $50-$100 million more if he hits free agency.

There's also the fact that the Dodgers tried to do just what Johnson said—pay Kershaw like he's the best pitcher around.

Kershaw had a contract worth upward of $300 million presented to him over the summer, according to an October report by Olney in ESPN The Magazine. And yet, the deal was never completed, with Kershaw apparently hesitant over the length of such a commitment and reluctant to negotiate during the season.

Whatever the reason, it's a bit worrisome—for both sides—that such a massive number wasn't able to get it done right then and there, no?

From the Dodgers' point of view, if $300 million was actually on the table, what more could Kershaw want? From the pitcher's perspective, it would be foolish to have walked away from an amount that could have made him the highest-paid hurler—and player—in baseball history.

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In the end, this could wind up being one costly game of chicken if the Dodgers have to raise the bar they've already set, or if Kershaw has any performance- or health-related struggles in 2014.

But Kershaw is the one with most of the power here, given how well he's pitched and how close he is to hitting the market. The Dodgers, who will more than likely have baseball's biggest-ever payroll next season, even if they don't lock him up long term. might actually not be able to afford something for once—in this case, calling the curious Kershaw's let's-play-the-free-agency-game bluff.

To be clear, no one is blaming either side for this reported proposed deal not already being done, since it's not often that teams or players put finances at the forefront during the season. But now that the offseason has begun, the clock is ticking and the Dodgers would be wise to hammer things out if, in fact, they want to keep Kershaw in Los Angeles for, oh, the next decade, as opposed to only one more year.

The alternative, of course, is to give 29 other teams a chance to talk to Kershaw, which would only drive up a price that is already astronomical.

"We already know we've got to give him a lot of money," Johnson said in October, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. "What's a few more zeroes?"

A few more zeroes are enough to potentially prevent Kershaw's curiosity from getting the best of the Dodgers.

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