Yesterday, Clayton Kershaw signed a two year extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers that will pay him $19 million over the deal. He’ll get $7.5 million this season for his age 24 season and $11 million next year for his age 25 season, with one year of arbitration left in 2014.
At first glance, this seems like an excellent deal for the Dodgers. Tim Lincecum got $23 million for his first two arbitration years (although he had won two Cy Young awards to Kershaw’s one upon signing that deal), but those two years were his age 25-26 and 26-27 seasons, two years older than Kershaw at the same time. When Lincecum was 23, like Kershaw was last season as the NL’s Cy Young winner, he just debuted in the majors, making 24 starts for the Giants in 2007. Another comparable pitcher, Cole Hamels, got a three year, $20.5 million deal that bought out his first three arbitration years (Hamels was a super two), his age 25-27 seasons.
The Dodgers are paying less to Kershaw than the Giants did to Lincecum and the Phillies did to Hamels (albeit, getting one less year of control than Philly did for Hamels), and look at what Kershaw has done before his 24th birthday. He’s thrown 716 1/3 major league innings over 116 starts, and amassed 17.1 fWAR with a 2.88 ERA and a strikeout rate of better than one batter per inning. Lincecum debuted in the majors shortly before his 23rd birthday, and he threw 146 1/3 innings of 4.00 ERA ball and was worth 3.2 fWAR. Hamels had just 132 1/3 innings in his age 23 season, and had a 4.08 ERA and 2.6 fWAR. Kershaw crushes them for experience at this stage in his career.
Because of the mileage on his arm at this young age, there is an increased risk for an injury. But at the same time, it’s not the end of the world if Kershaw gets hurt. The Dodgers aren’t going to up and cut Kershaw if he blows out his elbow in Arizona next month, and they still have him under control for two more years. And if he keeps improving as he has every year of his career (his xFIP has decreased and his K:BB has increased every year of his career), the Dodgers could have the best pitcher on baseball under contract for relative peanuts for the next two seasons. That will surely lead to a hellacious arbitration award, like the one Lincecum sought this winter, in 2014, but let’s just focus on the positives for now. The Dodgers did well in buying out two of Kershaw’s arbitration years, and if he keeps performing like he did last year throughout them, he’ll set himself up nicely for a long-term deal from the team.
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