Clayton Kershaw, 25 years old, has agreed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a contract extension worth $215 million over the next seven years, sources confirmed Wednesday afternoon. That's nearly $31 million per season, more than any ballplayer has been paid ever. If Kershaw concludes he is underpaid after five of those seasons, then, at 30 years old, he will be released from that contract to become a free agent.
As the Dodgers view it, and there's hardly an argument, no pitcher has been better through nearly 1,200 innings. Kershaw is young and healthy and left-handed and 77-46 at a time many pitchers, even the good ones, are only just finding themselves. Or finding they might not belong.
This is what happens when a player and a franchise grow up together. His career birthed during the crash-and-burn McCourt experience, Kershaw crept up on free agency in the Guggenheim era. So, before Kershaw could run off in search of organizational dignity and stability, the club had transformed itself into something more secure. It supplemented his talent with decent teammates. The Dodgers played themselves to the brink of the World Series, with the potential for more of the same. There's reason to doubt whether Kershaw would have hung around for more pettiness and wispy promises. And losing.
It may seem trite, but the Dodgers view Kershaw as more than a 230-inning, 1.83-ERA rock, rare as that may be. This is, after all, the young man who insisted on the ball on three days' rest in the team's most recent division series. In Game 4 of that series against the Atlanta Braves, he did not allow an earned run over six innings. Beyond that, he is a forceful leader in the Dodgers' clubhouse, a difficult job for someone who plays every fifth day. On those days, Kershaw often is the toughest man on the field, where he operates at the corner of precision and ferocity. In his down time, he – along with his wife, Ellen – built an orphanage and a school in Africa. The Dodgers like the pitcher. Really like the pitcher. They'll pay the pitcher. But they also love the guy.
So the Dodgers sign up for seven years of Kershaw – the two-time Cy Young Award winner, the Sandy Koufax disciple, the undisputed best pitcher in the game. They also sign up for Kershaw the man, the teammate, the example. They'll commit $215 million, when the most lucrative pitcher's contract in history was seven years and $180 million, that belonging to Justin Verlander.
There is risk. Pitchers break, often without warning. The next pitch could be the last. And if not that pitch, then the one after it. The Dodgers bet on Kershaw, however. He has averaged 32 starts in his first five full seasons, and he tacked on four starts last October. They choose to believe in him, and a long, blessed career, because sometimes careers happen that way, and it may as well be his.
Also, they have money to spare.
Under Guggenheim, and with a new television deal bankrolling the rebirth, the Dodgers more than doubled their payroll from 2012 ($105 million) to 2013 ($217 million). Including Kershaw, they'll have five players under contract for $140 million or more. Their shortstop, Hanley Ramirez, is due an extension. And the team remains interested in Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who could draw $100 million or more. Depending on how Kershaw's contract is laid out, the Dodgers could have five players – along with Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford – earn more than $20 million in 2014. Eleven will earn more than $10 million.
Some will view this as gluttony. Some will view it as reckless. The Dodgers, however, see it differently. After years spent in slumber, the franchise is becoming its potential. That means putting stars in the lineup and keeping stars such as Kershaw in the organization.
By Kershaw and by the fans, this was the right thing to do. By the organization, it was the only thing to do.