Earlier this week, the Mariners and Felix Hernandezcompleted a seven-year, $175 million contract. It's the largest deal ever for a pitcher, topping CC Sabathia's original seven-year, $161 million deal with the Yankees, and it's also the highest average annual value for any pitcher on a multi-year deal, surpassing Zack Greinke's recent six-year, $147 million deal ($24.5 million per year) with the Dodgers; only Roger Clemens' one-year deal from 2007 ($28,000,022) comes in higher, though he received only a prorated share since he didn't join the Yankees until June 9.
With the completion of Hernandez's contract, attention has already turned to the next pitchers in line for similar megadeals that will almost certainly top the current standard in total dollars, average annual value, or both. Sooner or later, someone is going to become the game's first $200 million pitcher. Among the coming free agent class, there aren't any hurlers who figure to do so; the ages and injuries of Roy Halladay and Johan Santana — neither of whom is likely to have their 2014 option picked up (the former is a vesting option, the latter a club option) — figure to put a dent in their next deals.
On the other hand, two pitchers who will be eligible for free agency after the 2014 season may well agree to extensions with their current clubs sometime before they hit the market: 2011 Cy Young winners Justin Verlander of the Tigers and Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers. Both stand a chance of joining Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Prince Fielder in the $200 million stratosphere.
Kershaw, who turns 25 on March 19, appears more likely to reach an agreement first, but could end up with the lower-valued deal. He's in the final season of a two-year $19 million extension signed last February, after which he will still have one more year of arbitration eligibility. Given his current salary of $11 million, he'd be guaranteed to receive a record-level award if his case were to go to arbitration; the current standard is the $10 million Ryan Howard won in 2008.
Whatever Kershaw receives, it will be less than then $20+ million he'd get if he were eligible for free agency, because that's just the way salaries work for players still eligible for arbitration; the record for any pre-free agency player is held by Tim Lincecum, who will receive $22 million this year. There's a caveat in that Lincecum was a Super Two who thus had four years of arbitration eligibility and an extra raise; he received $18 million plus a $500,000 signing bonus in his third year of eligibility, a standard eclipsed slightly by the $19 million ($17 million plus a $2 million signing bonus payout) that Votto will receive this year.
Kershaw may not get that much initially. Lincecum had two Cy Young awards, three strikeout titles and four All-Star appearances — not to mention a World Series ring — under his belt when he signed his deal in January 2012, plus the extra year of service time. Kershaw has one Cy, a pitchers Triple Crown (league leads in wins, strikeouts and ERA) and an additional ERA title to his credit; he won the latter one in 2012 but finished a distant second behind R.A. Dickey in the Cy Young balloting.
The Dodgers already have a payroll above $200 million, with four players on contracts of at least $100 million in Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Greinke. They've been spending money faster than they can burn it, but they aren't likely to hesitate in locking up Kershaw, who like Kemp is a product of their own player development system. General manger Ned Colletti has already expressed his desire to work out a multi-year deal, but the two sides have yet to sit down and discuss terms. Kershaw says he hasn't decided what kind of package he's seeking. The good news is that the hip inflammation which limited him late last year seems to have subsided; at one point it appeared surgery was likely, which would have definitely affected his next contract. More good news for the Dodgers: The contracts of Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez and Ted Lilly — all in the range of $13-$17 million per year — will be off the books after the 2014 season, affording the team some salary relief.
One thing is certain: Kershaw ranks among the elite pitchers up to this point in his career. His 138 ERA+ is the third-best of any post-1961 Expansion Era pitcher through his age-24 season (600 inning minimum), behind only Tom Seaver and Roger Clemens, both at 141, and he has more innings than either. His strikeout rate of 9.3 per nine is fifth, as is his Wins Above Replacement total of 23.7 (Baseball-Reference.com version). Among contemporary pitchers over the course of his five-year career, his ERA+ ranks fourth (Halladay is first at 144), his strikeout rate is third (Lincecum is first at 9.8 per nine), his WAR sixth (Halladay is first at 30.0). The latter ranking owes to the fact that the five pitchers above him all have at least 167 more innings to their name in that span.
Verlander, who turns 30 on Feb. 20, is in the fourth year of a five-year, $80 million deal signed in February 2010, one that will pay him $20 million in both 2013 and 2014. Even so, the deal looks antiquated by today's standards given that it's tied for the 17th-highest in terms of average annual value — tied with the freshly inked deal of teammate Anibal Sanchez, at that. The list of less impressive pitchers who are making or have made more per year than Verlander includes John Lackey, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Barry Zito and Carlos Zambrano, not to mention Lincecum, who struggled mightily this past season.
Verlander has quite a resume to show for his career already: six Triple Crown titles (three for strikeouts, two for wins, one for ERA), five All-Star appearances, a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award, and a Cy Young award. He's the only player besides Don Newcombe to win all three awards, and the only player besides Sandy Koufax to win the Triple Crown, Cy Young and MVP in the same season. He's also got three other top five finishes in the Cy Young voting (including second last year), and has been part of two pennant winners.
However, his standings among pitchers through their age-29 seasons aren't much to write home about. Among those with at least 1,000 innings, he's 15th in strikeout rate (8.5 per nine), 17th in ERA+ (128) and 23rd in WAR (34.2). That said, he's been the game's third-most valuable pitcher over the past seven years with 34.4 WAR, behind Halladay (38.2) and Sabathia (37.4). His 129 ERA+ is fifth-best in that span, as is his 8.4 strikeouts per nine. He's taken a big step forward in his past two years, worth 6.3 and 5.7 WAR, respectively; his previous high was 3.2 in 2009.
Verlander has expressed interest in staying in Detroit, but neither he nor the Tigers have reached out as of yet, and he has also admitted that he's intrigued by free agency. Whether the Tigers can afford him is another matter. Given Fielder's nine-year, $214 million deal and Miguel Cabrera's eight-year, $152.3 million deal, owner Mike Ilich has shown he's not afraid to spend with the big boys. The Tigers ranked fifth in payroll last year at $133.0 million, and they're sixth at $145.4 million at the moment, with a handful of pre-arbitration salaries still to be set. Cabrera will be a free agent after the 2015 season, and the calculus of whether or not the Tigers want to keep him as well — and thus pay three players at least $24 million per year — could enter into the equation when it comes to their ace.
Verlander's workload — 1,553 1/3 innings total, with an average of 238 innings per year over the past four years — may give them pause. Since 1994, 29 pitchers have thrown at least 1,400 innings through their age 29 seasons. Thus far, only five have reached 1,000 innings from age-30 onward, and while the bulk of those pitchers are still active, only six have delivered at least 700 innings with an ERA+ of at least 110 so far.
All of which says that the odds of Verlander living up to his current standard over the life of his next deal remain slim. History has shown that only one pitchers with a contract of at least $80 million has been worth more than his team paid over the life of the deal: Pedro Martinez. That's according to a study by Baseball Think Factory's Dan Szymborski published at ESPN Insider, though his calculations don't include the existing deals of Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Matt Cain, or the new ones of Greinke, Sanchez and Cole Hamels.
Any deal for Verlander appears a ways off, and what happens this year will make the Tigers' course of action more clear. Likewise for Kershaw, particularly if a deal doesn't get done this spring, since the pitcher doesn't want to negotiate once the season starts. There's only a very slim chance that another pitcher will cut these two in line in the race towards $200 million. Reigining AL Cy Young winner David Price is arbitration eligible through 2015, and isn't likely to receive an extension unless he's traded by the Rays before then. So we'll likely have to wait a bit before any pitcher crosses the $200 million barrier.