The Los Angeles Dodgers and starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw have agreed to a seven-year contract extension worth $215 million, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne. The contract also has an opt-out after five years, meaning that there's a possibility Kershaw could cash in *again*.
The two-time NL Cy Young winner won't turn 26 until March, and has been one of the very best pitchers in baseball since he debuted in 2008. In his five full years in the majors, Kershaw hasn't failed to make 30 starts, and has crossed the 200 inning threshold in each of the past four seasons. In 1180 career innings, Kershaw has struck out 1206, walked 393, and has pitched to a 2.60 ERA. No qualified starter in baseball has had an ERA that low since Kershaw threw his first major league pitch.
It goes without saying that this contract is massive. It's the largest ever for a starting pitcher, clearing Justin Verlander's extension a year ago by $35 million. His contract also edges Prince Fielder's deal with the Tigers (that has already been passed on to the Rangers) as the sixth-largest in baseball history, behind Alex Rodriguez (twice), Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, and Joey Votto. The $30.7 million average annual value is far and away the highest in baseball history, $5 million more per year than Verlander's $25.7 million AAV from just a year ago.
There are obviously questions about this contract. Kershaw hasn't run across any stumbling blocks during his brief major league career, and his talent and performance definitely warrant this type of payment. But remember – he's a pitcher. Dodgers fans are probably immediately thinking back to Darren Dreifort, admittedly not in the same class as Kershaw. Dreifort got a five-year, $55 million contract from Los Angeles after the 2000 season and proceeded to throw just 205 2/3 innings in the majors after signing that contract because of surgeries on his elbow, shoulder, and knee. All it takes is one awful injury to destroy a career. Kershaw has shown no signs of wear quite yet, but the risk is there – especially when you have a guy as young as Kershaw with as many innings on his arm.
The question now turns from Kershaw to Masahiro Tanaka. The Dodgers have been linked to Tanaka since before he was even posted, and the interest seemed mutual following Tanaka's comments about preferring the west coast. But if Los Angeles did add the Japanese hurler this month, their payroll for the 2014 season would eclipse the $250 million mark, and they'd probably end up with nearing $200 million committed for 2015-17 – and that doesn't even take into account a possible extension for Hanley Ramirez, who will hit the free agent market following the 2014 season.
If I had to place a bet, I'd say that the Kershaw extension is independent from a possible Tanaka signing. While it's pretty much guaranteed that the Dodgers are going to be in luxury tax hell in 2014, I'm not too sure about beyond – they have Josh Beckett's $17 million and Chad Billingsley's $12 million (minus a $3 million buyout) coming off the books after this season, and might end up moving Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier once prospect Joc Pederson shows he's ready for the big leagues. Slotting in a contract for Tanaka could work quite well for the Dodgers beyond 2014, even if it would put them in an ugly payroll situation this season.
One other reason that Tanaka could still land in Los Angeles – his age. Tanaka is just 25, eight months younger than Kershaw. It's one thing to pay an aging starter like Beckett a lot of money, it's a completely different thing to pay someone like Tanaka or Kershaw that much money. The Dodgers wouldn't need to worry about top-tier starting pitching for the next five years if they add Tanaka. When you figure that Hyun-Jin Ryu is also a young guy at 26 (27 in March) and that Zack Greinke has less mileage on his arm than you'd expect from a 30-year old, the Dodgers wouldn't have to worry about their rotation. Guys like James Shields, Jon Lester, and Max Scherzer are going to get paid once they hit free agency, and all have more risk than the young Los Angeles staff. If you're going to break budgets, you might as well do it by signing young talent instead of retreads.