How Clayton Kershaw's Mega-Deal Shapes Future for Next-Generation Superstars

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2014

That rumbling coming from Los Angeles has to do with the business that's gone down between the Dodgers and ace lefty Clayton Kershaw.

That other rumbling? That's probably the other bright young stars around Major League Baseball throwing a party. 

We'll get to that. But first, the news!

The business that's gone down on Wednesday between Kershaw and the Dodgers was first reported by Ramona Shelburne of

We've known this was coming. Heck, it was just on Wednesday morning that Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports warned that an extension could happen this week. The only real surprise is that Kershaw didn't get the 10-year, $300 million whopper that's been rumored for him.

No big loss, though. The deal Kershaw got is still a dandy. It's the largest ever for a starting pitcher at a total of $215 million. Its $30.7 million average annual value is a record high for any player at any position. As for the opt-out clause, shoot, that might prove to be the best part of the deal for Kershaw down the line (more on this shortly).

As for how Kershaw's deal changes things in the short term, let's not get too carried away. While his contract is yet another in a seemingly endless line of deals raising the price for good starting pitching, it's not like $30 million-per-year pitchers are going to start coming fast and furious.

Put it this way: Name me another starting pitcher who A) is still only 25, B) is nearing free agency and C) has won three straight National League ERA titles.

[Simulated silence]


But don't worry, the effect of Kershaw's deal should be felt eventually. There aren't any players in his situation now, but there might be several before you know it.

Kershaw debuted in 2008 at the age of 20, unusually young for a rookie those days. But suddenly, young debuts like that aren't so uncommon. Nor is considerable talent showing through at such a young age.

Here's a quick list of players who have debuted at a young age since 2010 and who, importantly in our case, haven't yet been locked up for the long haul.

Relevant Young Superstars
PlayerDebut YearDebut Age*FA EligibleFA Age*
Jason Heyward201020201625
Giancarlo Stanton201020201726
Mike Trout201119201825
Bryce Harper201219201925
Manny Machado201219201925
Jose Fernandez201320201925

*I'm using "Debut Age" to mean their seasonal age. Their "FA Age" is their seasonal age in their final year before free agency.

Mike Trout is baseball's best player. Bryce Harper has had his ups and downs, but he's still one of the most accomplished players ever through the age of 20. Jason Heyward is quietly one of the game's best all-around talents. Giancarlo Stanton's power is absurd. Manny Machado is an excellent third baseman. Jose Fernandez just had one of the greatest 20-year-old pitching seasons in history.

So yeah, there's just a bit of talent in that table. And just like Kershaw was set to do, each of those guys has a shot to hit free agency in the very thicky-thick of his prime.

In other words, these are the guys who are probably partying the hardest right now. More so than any other players out there, Kershaw's new deal is relevant to them. They may very well be looking right at it and saying, "Hmmm...I might be able to use this."

Now, nothing's a foregone conclusion just yet. The guys in the above table have certain, oh, let's call them checklists to maintain.

The first item is the most obvious and most vital: keep getting better and keep producing. Kershaw's a fine example to follow, as the early success he enjoyed in 2009 and 2010 (2.85 ERA) pale in comparison to his more recent success over the last three years (2.21 ERA). 

Second order of business: be willing to risk a bit of patience.

Recently, there's been a trend of good young players signing extensions during their pre-arbitration years that take care of them through both their arbitration years and some of their free-agent years. The attraction for the players is to get taken care of while the getting's good. The attraction for teams is to buy up those oh-so-valuable free-agent years of a player's late 20s.

The Kershaw contract is likely to make the Angels even more aggressive trying to lock up Trout, the Nationals more aggressive to lock up Harper and so on down the line. They should listen. But they also have to know that if they really want to get paid, they need to take after Kershaw.

Kershaw didn't go the early extension route, in part, granted, because Frank McCourt and his empty pockets were running the show in Chavez Ravine during Kershaw's pre-arbitration years. Maybe he would have had it another way if Magic Johnson and Co. had come along earlier, but, hey, it worked out.

By holding off until his final arbitration year to sign, Kershaw got to sign away his late-20s for market value rather than something significantly below market value like what you see with many (all?) of the recent extensions. 

A big victory, that.

So is the opt-out clause, as it will allow Kershaw to hit the open market and hunt for another mega-contract after his age-30 season in 2018 if he so desires. Had he done a deal with no opt-out clause, he'd have hit the market in his decline years. The one mega-contract might have been it for him.

Such is the gist of Kershaw's contract for the young guys who could look to copycat it: big money (obviously) and the opportunity to get out of it to seek more big money.

The first test case is going to be Heyward. There's a chance he'll sign an extension with the Braves that keeps him from free agency, but that seems unlikely given their budget restrictions. He's probably due to test the free-agent waters after 2015, just two short seasons away.

Once out there, it's hard to imagine Heyward topping the $30.7 million AAV that Kershaw got. But he could very well point to that as a guidepost in negotiations. Just as importantly, Heyward could point to Kershaw's opt-out clause as a must-have. If Kershaw could get away with guaranteeing only his age 26-30 seasons, then why not Heyward?

Why not indeed. And if Heyward were to be successful in securing a rich long-term deal with an opt-out, there would be even more precedent for the players up next: Stanton, Trout and then Harper, Machado and Fernandez. 

Trout's the guy who looks destined to reset the mold that Kershaw and the Dodgers have set down. With only one year to go until arbitration eligibility, Trout doesn't have that long to wait before he can be just like Kershaw and ink a mega-extension on the eve of his free agency. Better still is that the Angels' payroll will be less tight than it is now, making a mega-extension a legit possibility.

And it really will be mega if it comes to it. A rough guess says that $30.7 million per year for Kershaw in 2014 translates to anything from $35 million to $40 million per year for Trout in 2017. And maybe it won't be seven years with an opt-out. Maybe it will be 10 years with an opt-out. Or a dozen.

That would be fine by him. And probably for Harper, Machado and Fernandez too. The mold would be reset with even more ridiculous numbers, and they'd be next.

We shall see. Always in motion is the future, and one certainly worries that talking big about contracts for 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 in 2014 might look like a fool's errand in retrospect.

But we know this: Getting paid in baseball is a matter of talent, timing and precedent. Trout, Harper and the others certainly have talent and timing working for them, and Kershaw has set one hell of a precedent.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked.


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