An unprecedented contract for a star player will typically set the bar for a comparable player in the future. But Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who has reportedly agreed to a seven-year, $215 million contract extension, according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com, could stand alone as an exception to the rule.
Kershaw's $30.7 million average annual salary and guaranteed overall amount are the highest ever for a pitcher.
Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis spoke on Wednesday about the deal and was thrilled to get their ace locked up long term, according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times:
He's the highest-paid pitcher of all time, and it still feels like he's underpaid.
It would have been a huge distraction the entire season. You wouldn't have been able to get through a series, or a start, without somebody wanting to talk to him about it. Clayton doesn't need distractions while he's performing. He's single-minded. I think it's great for everybody that it worked out.
Is there a young pitcher in the majors, or even a top pitching prospect, worthy of surpassing either mark four, five or six years down the road?
While there are several young pitching stars who already have great seasons under their belt early in their big-league careers, it's hard to match what Kershaw has done through his age-25 season.
Through five and a half major-league seasons, the left-hander has two NL Cy Young Awards, three NL ERA titles and a 21-win season. He's led the league in strikeouts twice and even won a Gold Glove back in 2011. Who is going to match that?
Miami Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2013, had a much more impressive age-20 season than Kershaw. Five seasons from now, it wouldn't be a complete shock if his overall numbers are as good or even better. He's that good and he'll continue to make approximately half of his starts in one of the pitcher-friendliest parks in the game for the foreseeable future.
But as is the case with anyone who throws a baseball for a living, the injury risk is high and it's not easy to do what Kershaw has done—stay healthy and average 32 starts and 214 innings in his five full seasons in the majors.
Even if Fernandez (pictured) can stay healthy and remain as dominant as he was as a rookie, which is far from a sure thing, he's not going to get a contract offer anywhere near Kershaw's while he's a Miami Marlin. And this is not a knock against the Marlins. There just aren't very many teams that can afford to pay any player that kind of money.
The best course of action for a team that isn't the Dodgers or New York Yankees, the only two teams in the majors with payrolls that are expected to exceed $200 million next season, would be to try to sign a star player earlier (Kershaw was entering his final year of club control and could've become a free agent after the season).
A team like this could sign its player to a contract extension that ensures him long-term financial security in exchange for much less money than he would've commanded had he entered free agency a healthy and productive player.
Justin Verlander signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension with the Detroit Tigers with two years of club control remaining. Felix Hernandez also had two years of club control remaining when he signed a five-year, $78 million deal with the Seattle Mariners.
With four years of club control remaining, the Chicago White Sox locked up ace Chris Sale to a five-year, $32.5 million deal with club options for 2018 and 2019.
The further away a player is from free agency, the more team-friendly a contract will be. A year away from free agency, a star player like Kershaw has much less reason to give his team a discount.
If an agreement can't be reached or a contract extension isn't even in the cards because it's obvious that the price will be out of a team's range, then a trade involving that player will very likely be explored.
It's not that simple, though, as the Tampa Bay Rays are finding out. Just because they're willing to listen to trade offers for ace David Price and can't afford to sign him to a contract extension doesn't mean that they'll trade him.
With two years left of club control and a resume that isn't that far behind Kershaw's, the 28-year-old lefty won't come cheap in a trade. And the Rays should hold their ground until they get an offer that's at least very close to what they're looking for.
For Price (pictured) to get a contract extension anywhere close to what Kershaw is getting, he'd have to first be traded to a team with a history of handing out big-money deals. The Tigers, Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies could fall into that category, though their weak farm systems would make putting together a trade package that would entice the Rays nearly impossible.
The Marlins could be in the same exact position with Fernandez three years from now. And if he fails to agree to a contract extension and does reach free agency after the 2018 season, which he is on track to do, he'll find that the limited number of teams willing to pay Kershaw-type money will actually keep his price down.
Which young pitching star has the best chance of getting a Kershaw-like extension?
The top three starting pitchers in this year's free-agent pool—Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana—while not considered "aces," aren't likely to crack the $100 million mark. Only Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka, who is just 25 and considered to have No. 1-starter potential by some, is likely to land a nine-figure contract. And it probably won't exceed $150 million over seven years.
It's difficult to see any starting pitcher matching Kershaw's contract anytime soon. For him to land a deal of this magnitude, several factors had to fall in line.
He is, arguably, the best pitcher in the National League. He's entering his age-26 season and his seven-year contract isn't likely to go beyond his prime seasons. He also plays for a team that is expected to make over $6 billion in television revenue over the next 25 years (via Shaikin).
And the team's new ownership group, which took over during the 2012 season, has made it known that it'll do whatever it takes to bring a championship to Los Angeles in the very near future. Keeping one of the best pitchers in baseball in the mix through the 2020 season certainly was a "no-brainer" in this case.
Each of those variables contributed to what is likely a once-in-an-era contract extension that is unlikely to factor into the equation when other star pitchers are negotiating deals down the line.