COMMENTARY | On Wednesday afternoon, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Clayton Kershaw to a seven-year, $215 million contract extension, making him the highest paid player in major league history (in terms of average annual salary).
No sooner had the news been reported than the obligatory debate began regarding the wisdom of the deal.
Recent history suggests that long-term contracts in baseball almost always backfire on the team. However, given Kershaw's youth and the Dodgers' financial state, this contract could turn out to be the exception to the rule.
Fans of the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox undoubtedly rolled their eyes upon hearing of Kershaw's new-found riches. Surely they recall the short-lived sense of euphoria they felt when their teams splurged on Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett, respectively.
Detroit Tigers fans may soon join the chorus of cynics if Justin Verlander doesn't improve on a sub-standard 2013 season that came on the heels of the seven-year, $180 million contract he signed last March.
I'll let the Seattle Mariners fans enjoy their shiny new Robinson Cano for a year before joining the "What-the-hell-was-Jack-Zduriencik-thinking?!" fan club.
As for Kershaw, his relative youth (Kershaw turns 26 in March) makes him a substantially safer bet than the aforementioned group of All-Stars was when they agreed to their mega-deals.
Yes, pitchers seem to break down at an alarming rate these days. However, the Dodgers can seek comfort in knowing that age is unlikely to be a contributing factor to any decline that Kershaw suffers towards the backend of the deal.
Significant injuries contributed to the sudden decline of players like Crawford, Pujols and Teixeira. Alcohol and drug abuse early in his career may have finally started to take its toll on Hamilton's body, and we can only speculate as to how much performance-enhancing drug use has affected A-Rod over the course of his career.
But assuming Kershaw remains relatively healthy over the next few years, Sabathia's career could offer a reasonable comparison for what the Dodgers can expect from their ace.
Like Sabathia in 2008, Kershaw is coming off perhaps his best season in the majors. After winning his second NL Cy Young award in the past three years (book-ending a second-place finish in 2012), Kershaw has solidified his status as the best left-handed pitcher in baseball, if not the best overall pitcher.
After leading the Milwaukee Brewers to the NL Central title in 2008, Sabathia's stature around the league was similar to Kershaw's reputation now. By the end of the 2007 season, during which Sabathia turned 27, he'd been named AL Rookie of the Year, made three All-Star teams, and won an AL Cy Young Award.
However, Sabathia was already 28 when he signed his initial seven-year, $161 million contract to join the Yankees prior to the 2009 season. He turned 29 in July of that year, making him nearly 2 1/2 years older than Kershaw at the beginning of their respective contracts.
Having broken into the majors at age 20, Sabathia already had eight full seasons of wear on his throwing arm by the time he'd join the Yankees. At the time, his durability was seen as a plus, having pitched 1,659.1 innings over 254 starts between 2001 and 2008.
Kershaw, by contrast, has pitched just 1,180 innings over 184 appearances (182 starts) during the first six years of his career. This obviously makes Kershaw's age more relevant in comparison to Sabathia's since Kershaw also has less mileage on his arm.
Sabathia is now 32, the same age that Kershaw will be at the end of his new deal (assuming Kershaw doesn't take advantage of the opt-out clause in his contract at the end of the fifth year). If you believe that Sabathia's sudden decline in 2013 was an inevitable byproduct of his age and career workload, one might also expect that Kershaw will suffer a similar drop-off in what would be the final year of his new contract.
No two players age exactly the same, and it is only fair to point out that the 6-7, 290-pound Sabathia and the 6-3, 220-pound Kershaw have vastly different frames and fitness levels -- another factor working strongly in Kershaw's favor. If the Dodgers get anywhere close to the same of level production from Kershaw (adjusting for league and home ballpark) over the next seven years as Sabathia provided during his age 26-32 seasons, Los Angeles will end up getting a discount on the services of the best pitcher in baseball.
It must also be mentioned that the Dodgers are better positioned to take on a contract of Kershaw's magnitude than any other team Major League Baseball. Like the Yankees, the Dodgers have the financial resources to continue fielding competitive teams, even if Kershaw's career takes an unexpected turn for the worst.
This is largely due to the 25-year, $8.5 billion television contract that the Dodgers signed with Time Warner Cable last June. On the same day that Kershaw's new contract was announced, MLB finally approved the Dodgers' television deal, agreeing to let the team keep more than $6 billion in revenue over the life of the deal (roughly $260 million per year).
So now the team most able to take on the risk associated with a $200 million contract (the Dodgers) have signed the youngest player -- by more than two years -- to ever sign a multi-year contract of at least seven years in length and worth at least $20 million per year (Kershaw). Looking at the contract objectively, even the greatest skeptic of long-term contracts will have a hard time labeling the Kershaw extension as a bad deal.
Geoff Ratliff is an MLB and fantasy baseball enthusiast and a former Featured Columnist for the Los Angeles Dodgers for Bleacher Report. He is also the co-host of the baseball podcast Pop Fly Boys and COO Fantasy Sports Warehouse.
- Sports & Recreation
- CC Sabathia