Clayton Kershaw on MLB free agency: It's hard not to pay attention this year

LOS ANGELES – Clayton Kershaw, soon to be 30, cannot avoid the slide that is right in front of him. The generational pitcher is a decade in the big leagues, better than 2,000 innings in, and his reality is the slide. On this Friday afternoon in a park just east of downtown, Kershaw considers this slide, what it might mean in seasons to come, and with a wrench he fastens the blue plastic chute to a ledge of the jungle gym, gives it a shake, confirms its sturdiness, and seems pleased enough. It’ll hold.

“It’s a fun time,” he says, meaning the day, spent with Los Angeles Dodgers teammates at Alhambra Park, a cozy patch of green in need of a coat of paint, some bags of fresh concrete and a few turns of a wrench.

Mostly, they pose for pictures and sign caps and laugh with some of the neighborhood kids. But, hey, a guy hands you a socket set and points at a slide, you get to work.

Kershaw spent his winter outside Dallas, lately throwing five days a week with Yu Darvish, the free agent pitcher who, like Kershaw, is less than three weeks from spring training and, like most upper-tier free agents, doesn’t yet have a job. The market has been hard on a class that finds itself in a place between now and next year’s class (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, perhaps Kershaw and David Price, et al.), between what was advertised as a competitive balance tax and in actuality is presenting as a medium-hard salary cap, and between the mandate for immediate competency and (financial and competitive) lure of the organizational rebuild, among other factors.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw can opt-out of his deal at the end of the season. (AP)
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw can opt-out of his deal at the end of the season. (AP)

Soon, perhaps next winter, Kershaw will be out there, too, in a job market players and agents this winter seem to believe is at best perplexing and at worst awfully suspicious. He may opt out of the final two years and near-$70 million of his contract with the Dodgers. He may not. The Dodgers could attempt to negotiate an extension of his contract. Or not. He could test free agency and return to the Dodgers. Presumably, it’s all in play, none of it to be decided today on a rehabbed playground.

“I think the great thing about having options is just that, it’s an option,” Kershaw says. “It’s not really a decision. So, I think for me it’s just go out and try and pitch and be healthy and then if I have options at the end of the year, great.”

Assuming more of the same, innings at 200 or more, ERA at 2.50 or less, and a return to his pattern of 30-plus starts, there’ll probably be a choice to be made. A decision.

“Well,” he says, “I guess more than anything, I need to go pitch. And then everything will take care of itself from there. There might be a decision. But at the end of the day, I just gotta go pitch and figure it out from there.”

This winter and the trials of its free-agent talent, Kershaw says, will not impact his career path. The Dodgers, for one, thus far have avoided high-end free agents. They, like the New York Yankees, like the San Francisco Giants, like other big spenders, seem to be seeking relief under the CBT. They also lost no pivotal players to free agency, and also played to Game 7 of the World Series.

“I think, our team that we have is so good, obviously,” he says. “We know that. I think more than anything, it’s not just the Dodgers, but just the way the market is going right now in general. Everybody talks about the CBT and all this stuff, like which teams can’t spend and which teams can spend. Maybe that’s on the players’ association for what we agreed to. But at the same time we don’t care if they go over. They made enough money where they can spend money if they need to. That’s not for us to worry about. We just want to have the best team possible. I think we have a pretty good team right now.”

Beyond that, he says, “I don’t pay too much attention to [free agency], but it’s hard not to this year. So many guys, so many great players … I was happy to see the Lorenzo Cain deal. I feel like he got fair value for what he’s worth. Maybe, him and [Christian] Yelich getting traded, maybe that starts some stuff going. We’ll just see. It doesn’t matter until these guys start signing. And just make sure they get what they deserve, is the most important thing.

Clayton Kershaw was happy to see Lorenzo Cain’s five-year, $80 million deal with Milwaukee on Thursday. (AP)
Clayton Kershaw was happy to see Lorenzo Cain’s five-year, $80 million deal with Milwaukee on Thursday. (AP)

“I don’t have access to all the teams’ books. I don’t know how much each team is making or how much they’re spending, the revenue sharing money, [if] they’re spending it back on the players. We all don’t know that stuff. We do feel like the game is in a good spot. We feel like the game is thriving, for sure. We just want to make sure that everybody is getting what they deserve. As a union, we’re definitely aware of what’s going on.”

He’ll play it out, he says, see where it leads them all. Winter’s not over. Things evolve.

“I think it’ll change next offseason though, right?,” he says. “Well, just the three or four teams that are trying to get under that threshold this year may be technically under for next threshold. You would think that would change some things. Like I said, there’s so many factors. You can’t really pinpoint why it is the way it is this year. There’s a lot of theories and a lot of people talking about different things. But at the end of the day, I think every market is just going to be different and next year might be a little different than this one.”