Late last March, just before the 2013 season opened, the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw were reportedly close to completing a contract extension that would have surpassed Justin Verlander's seven-year, $180 million extension even before the ink on that one had dried as the richest deal ever for a pitcher. Alas, the two sides couldn't finalize an agreement before Opening Day, but the 25-year-old southpaw has finally cashed in via a seven-year, $215 million deal — setting records for the highest average annual value ($30.7M) of any player and the largest contract ever for a pitcher.
That Kershaw would be the one to set the record makes sense, as he's got a solid claim on being the best pitcher in baseball. In 2013 he set career bests with 236 innings, a 1.83 ERA and 7.8 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) while striking out 232 batters and helping the Dodgers reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. He has now led the NL in ERA three straight years and strikeouts and WAR for two consecutive seasons. He capped his campaign by winning his second Cy Young award, coming within one first-place vote of doing so unanimously.
Over the past three seasons, Kershaw has the game's lowest ERA (2.21), highest ERA+ (166) and highest strikeout total (709); only Verlander has thrown more innings (707 2/3 to Kershaw's 697) or compiled a higher WAR (20.8 to Kershaw's 20.6). When one considers that the Dodgers' ace is five years younger than his Tigers' counterpart while playing in the game's second-largest media market and under an ownership that became the first this side of the Yankees to breach the $200 million payroll threshold last year, it's no surprise that he not only surpassed Verlander's contract but that he did so by a wide margin — $5 million per year.
Verlander didn't really step into his role as an ace until his age-26 season in 2009. By contrast, Kershaw already ranks among the elite pitchers up to this point in his career. His 146 ERA+ is the best of any Expansion Era pitcher (i.e, since 1961) through his age-25 season (minimum of 600 innings). His 32.2 WAR ranks fifth among that group and his 9.2 strikeouts per nine are 10th. Among contemporary pitchers over the course of his six-year career, his ERA+ ranks first, his strikeout rate third (Tim Lincecum is first at 9.7 per nine, Max Scherzer second at 9.4), and his WAR is third as well (Cliff Lee is first at 37.5, Verlander second at 32.6).
Despite all of that, this seems like silly money to be throwing around for any pitcher, but Kershaw's age and clean injury history would appear to make him a better bet than most. He has never served a stint on the disabled list during his six-year major league career and has dealt with only a couple of minor injuries. He missed a pair of September 2009 starts due to an AC joint issue in his shoulder and one in September 2012 due to hip impingement. He has thrown 373 2/3 fewer innings than Verlander did at the time of his extension that covers his age 30-36 seasons, and 440 1/3 fewer innings than Felix Hernandez did at the time of his quickly-surpassed seven-year, $175 million extension that covers his age 27-33 seasons.
The Dodger ownership's willingness to spend money — and in doing so assume significant risk — made Kersahw's deal an inevitability. The team already has four players with contracts in excess of $100 million in Carl Crawford, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp, with all but the latter added to the payroll since the Guggenheim Partners purchased the team from the morally and financially bankrupt Frank McCourt for a record $2 billion in the spring of 2012. Gonzalez's seven-year, $154 million extension and Crawford's seven-year, $142 million free agent contract were both signed with the Red Sox; they came to Los Angeles in a blockbuster trade in August 2012. Greinke's six-year, $147 million free agent deal, signed in December 2012, briefly set a standard for pitchers in terms of average annual value, but that $24.5 million mark was quickly surpassed by both Hernandez ($25 million per year) and Verlander ($25.7 million per year).
Driving the Dodgers' expenditures is a record-setting television deal with Time Warner Cable, one valued at a staggering $8.5 billion over 25 years and running through 2038 — guaranteeing the franchise an average of $340 million per year. Even with the money that they'll put into revenue sharing, they'll retain more than $6 billion of that money over the life of the deal.
The year-by-year salary structure of Kershaw's contract has yet to be reported, but whatever it is, it will certainly top the $11 million he made in 2013, and probably the $20 million he might have made in arbitration this winter. If he does make $20 million, it would push the team's 2014 payroll commitments to around $227 million for 22 players, with deals for the arbitration-eligible A.J. Ellis and Kenley Jansen still to come. Eleven Dodgers are making more than $10 million per year including Kershaw.
While the structure remains unknown at this writing, what is known is that the deal contains an out clause after five years, allowing Kershaw to enter free agency following the 2018 season — when he'll be 30 years old — if he so chooses. That's an extra bit of risk L.A. has assumed, but it's not unprecedented; Greinke's deal includes an opt-out after the third season (2015). The Yankees built a similar clause into the seven-year, $161 million deal CC Sabathia signed in December 2008; he opted out after three years but remained with New York, effectively adding one more guaranteed season at $25 million with a $25 million vesting option and a $5 million buyout for the final year of his deal, 2017.
Kershaw is the sixth player in major league history to sign a deal worth at least $200 million, joining Alex Rodriguez (twice), Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder and Robinson Cano. At just shy of 26 years old (March 19 is his birthday), he's the youngest player in that group, nearly four years younger than Fielder. While Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported that L.A. discussed 10-year, $250 million and $12-year, $300 million deals with Kershaw, the pact he emerged with is very close to the seven-year, $210 million one he almost agreed to last spring. In all, this is an eye-popping contract, but's going to a pitcher who has already staked his claim as the best in the game, and one of the best to this point in his career. It's a deal the Dodgers can obviously afford, and they may not be done. They're believed to be one of the favorites to land Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka, whose posting fee and contract could come in at around $100 million — a drop in the bucket compared to Kershaw.