Did the Dodgers get a bargain by agreeing to fork over $215 million for seven years to Clayton Kershaw? Bargain may be going too far, but Los Angeles did secure the lefthander at something of a discount and without going to record lengths in terms of years.
Understand that Kershaw is only 25 years old with 1,180 innings on his arm and he is locked up for seven years, the same length the Tigers gave Justin Verlander 10 months ago at age 29 with 1,553 innings. (Kershaw can opt out of his deal after five years, when he will be 30).
Also understand that Kershaw was arbitration eligible this season and figured to earn about $18 million. That means the Dodgers valued his free agent years at about $32.8 million annually -- and they arrived at that valuation without any other club able to bid on Kershaw, which typically adds to a player's value.
(Keep that $32.8 million figure in mind; it will come into play whenever the Angels get around to trying to find a valuation for the free agent years of Mike Trout. He is not a free agent until after the 2017 season, but the Angels will probably have to top that amount if they want to buy up free agent years of Trout as part of an extension.)
I asked a prominent agent last month to estimate the average annual value of a Kershaw extension. "Best pitcher in baseball at age 25 with the team with the most money in baseball," the agent said. "It's the perfect storm. My guess would be about $35 million a year."
It was many years ago when a general manager, witnessing the Orioles give $65 million for five years to Albert Belle, told me, "The problem with that contract is that when you turn over that kind of money to a player, you want to feel good about doing it." Belle was a bust in Baltimore, breaking down after two seasons.
In Kershaw, the Dodgers have exactly the model player that makes a $215 million investment seem easy to digest. Los Angeles did an internal study about how Kershaw rated not just among his peers but also against all pitchers all time. What the Dodgers decided was that he was the best pitcher in history after passing the 1,000-inning mark. What they already knew was that his competitiveness on the mound and his perspective on life were also off-the-charts good.
Every long-term contract for a pitcher is a risk because of the injury factor. Kershaw, though remarkably durable through age 25, is no different. But baseball clubs keep telling you how important pitchers are with the money they keep throwing at them. Of the 18 largest contracts in history as ranked by average annual value, 10 of them have been handed to pitchers. It's a necessary risk. The Dodgers were able to retain the best pitcher in baseball without going beyond seven years of commitment. They have committed to pay Kershaw through his prime years only, through age 32.
As a quick example, CC Sabathia threw just about the same number of innings (1,165⅓) as Kershaw through age 25. He just finished his age-32 season -- with a 4.78 ERA, the worst season of his career. The Yankees still owe him $76 million through the next three years. These days, without exposure to the normal decline of the mid-30s, the Kershaw contract gets recorded in the win column.