Clayton Kershaw is pitching like Clayton Kershaw.
That's good news for the Los Angeles Dodgers and fantastic news for baseball.
We're talking about the greatest pitcher of his generation. He's worth rooting for—Dodgers fan or not.
In his most recent start, which came September 7 against the Colorado Rockies, Kershaw allowed two earned runs with seven strikeouts over six innings at Coors Field. It wasn't the best outing of his career—a high bar to clear—but it was yet another strong effort from the three-time National League Cy Young Award winner and one-time NL MVP.
The Dodgers have won each of Kershaw's last four turns on the hill. He's lasted six innings or more in every start since July 3. He posted a 1.95 ERA in July and a 2.06 mark in August.
Before his recent run of familiar dominance, Kershaw spent time on the disabled list with biceps and back issues. His status as the best pitcher on the planet was suddenly in doubt.
Lately, his trusted left arm has pushed those doubts to the back burner. Concurrently, the possibility of a Kershaw opt-out is bordering on a certainty.
Here's the deal: Kershaw is inked through the 2018 campaign. This winter, he can opt in for two more seasons with Los Angeles at a total of $70-plus million, per Cot's Contracts, or he can dip his toes into the free-agent waters.
If Kershaw's health problems had lingered or his results had trended southward, he might have chosen the safe route. He's back on the bump, however, and chucking it like his old self. Free agency is the way to go.
Yes, his fastball velocity has dipped from a career average of 93.7 mph to 91.4 mph, per FanGraphs. And he turned 30 in March, meaning any long-term contract will carry him into his mid-30s and beyond. That's when many pitchers' skills begin to erode.
The counterpoint? He's Clayton Kershaw.
Since 2011, Kershaw leads all pitchers with 50.7 WAR, according to FanGraphs. Only Max Scherzer (42.9) and Chris Sale (40.9) have surpassed 40 WAR over that span.
If Kershaw's brilliant career ended today, you could make a credible Hall of Fame case.
Thankfully, his career isn't over. And you can bet suitors will circle with their wallets wide open if he tests the market this winter.
Kershaw refused to tip his hand in April, and his tune hasn't changed.
"There will be a time to think about all that stuff, but that will be after the season," he said of his looming opt-out, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. "I've been to everywhere now. I know what it's like. I don't need to worry about that now. I can sift through all that stuff, if I have to, in the offseason."
Let's assume he sifts through the stuff and becomes a free agent. He's a Texas native who might replace fellow free-agent southpaw Dallas Keuchel atop the Houston Astros rotation or accelerate the Texas Rangers' rebuild.
The New York Yankees will be in the market for starting pitching. So will the Chicago Cubs. Don't count out the Boston Red Sox and, well, just about every other franchise with two nickels to rub together.
In the end, the Dodgers make the most sense. Kershaw has never worn another big league uniform. He's the face of the franchise. From and on-field and PR standpoint, Los Angeles should bring him back.
That may mean a new deal in excess of $200 million—something in line with the seven-year, $217 million pact the Red Sox handed David Price in December 2015 before his age-30 season.
Price has battled injuries and inconsistency in the intervening years. Kershaw could do the same. ESPN.com's Buster Olney spelled out the risk/reward proposition:
"There have been plenty of instances in which a team extended itself to retain an aging star, with Tom Brady perhaps being the best current example. There also have been teams that said no to Hall of Fame-caliber players—the Packers to Brett Favre, the Cardinals to Albert Pujols.
"In a perfect world in which money is not a factor and everybody lives happily ever after, the star stays, retires in harmony with his employers and comes back every year to wave to the crowds who once cheered his or her feats. But in this complicated world, that doesn't always happen."
On that scale, Kershaw would be worth the gamble.
The Dodgers haven't won a World Series since 1988. They acquired Manny Machado before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but if the season ended Wednesday, they'd miss the playoffs. If they fall short of a Commissioner's Trophy once again, can they also afford to let their ace go?
Kershaw is pitching like Kershaw.
That's great news all around, but it's especially good for him...and his bank account.