Clayton Kershaw has signed what is, in terms of average annual value, the most lucrative deal in baseball history. Multiple reports peg the terms of the contract extension agreed to between the soon-to-be 26-year-old left-hander and the Dodgers at seven years and $215 million. At almost $31 million a season, Kershaw will be pulling in far more than teammate Zack Greinke ($26 million in 2014, including pro-rated signing bonus), Cliff Lee ($25 million), and even Justin Verlander ($20 million in 2014, rising to $28 million thereafter). He can also run up a larger bar tab than such position players as Ryan Howard ($25 million), Albert Pujols ($23 million), and -- if he were playing -- Alex Rodriguez ($25 million, though he made more in earlier seasons). In terms of total value, it is the seventh-richest contract in baseball history and the richest ever given to a pitcher, easily topping the $175- and $180-million seven-year deals given to Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, respectively.
Kershaw is obviously a very special pitcher, the National League's ERA leader in each of the last three seasons and winner of the Cy Young award in two of those three. Kershaw's 2013 ERA of 1.83, when considered in the context of park and league, is one of the 40 best seasons in history among pitchers who have thrown 200 or more innings in a season. That is not to say the deal is without risks: Seven years is a long time for a pitcher to go without having a major injury or a decline in skills, and pitchers who rely on the slider are not known for their durability (Steve Carlton, who pitched forever at 250 innings a year, notwithstanding).
Having said that, Kershaw is exactly the kind of pitcher who is the best bet for a superexpensivelong contract (this is the technical term). He's young, his injury history is anodyne, he's dominant, and though by virtue of reaching the majors at 20 he's thrown a lot of major league innings for his age, he hasn't been worked in an irresponsible way. He's thrown about as many innings as Greg Maddux had by the time that newly-minted Hall of Famer was 25 (Kershaw has had 1,180 innings, Maddux 1,174), but far fewer than pitchers who were used abusively like Dwight Gooden and Fernando Valenzuela, each of whom was over 1,500 innings at this point in his career and whose periods of dominance had pretty much been spent. Kershaw has had just five starts of 120 or more pitches. There are no red lights.
As for the annual commitment of $31 million, with their TV money the Dodgers can hack it. The risk comes in the amount Kershaw claws out of whatever budgetary ceiling the Dodgers eventually set, for example if they, like the Steinbrenners, ultimately decide they don't want to tithe millions of dollars in luxury-tax penalties to the revenue-sharing pool. If Kershaw is due $31 million, Adrian Gonzalez around $21 million (through 2018), Carl Crawford about $20 million (through 2017), Matt Kemp about $21 million (through 2019), and Zack Greinke $23 or $24 million (through 2018), that's a $117 million in commitments with 20 roster spots yet to be filled. Perhaps Kemp is traded away in spring training, but even if he is, that leaves four players who by themselves are making as much as or more than 17 teams spent on their entire major league payroll in 2013. Nothing is infinite, even the Dodgers' bank account, and at some point they're going to need more flexibility than they're set up to have right now.
Possibly global warming will cause the Pacific Ocean to inundate Los Angeles as far inland as Chavez Ravine, requiring an expensive relocation to Rancho Cucamonga. The Dodgers might need to free up some cash then. More seriously, baseball has an uncanny way of making teams pay for being overcommitted. Given the sheer absurd depth of the Dodgers' line of credit, how they might come a cropper may not be obvious now, but the danger is real. For those who enjoy watching Kershaw pitch (which, it is to be hoped, includes everyone reading this here web site), it is to be hoped that said danger is not that of having a pitcher with a torn labrum taking up a constipating chunk of payroll.
Meanwhile, pitching grows ever more expensive. In December, 2010, free agent Cliff Lee signed a five-year deal with the Phillies with an average annual value of $24 million. That was, by a million a year, the richest contract on a yearly basis ever given a pitcher. In the three years since, it has been equaled or surpassed six times. The $15.6 million per season given Felix Hernandez prior to his more recent extension, covering 2010-2014, has been nearly doubled by Kershaw. The television dollars that have inundated the game are rewriting the rules to the point that the $189 million ceiling above which luxury tax penalties are incurred for the last three years of current Collective Bargaining Agreement may come to be seen as grossly inadequate not just for the Yankees and the Dodgers, but for perhaps a third or more of the major league teams.
Kershaw would have been a free agent after the coming season. With him removed from the list, the 2015 class of free agent pitchers is down to Max Scherzer, with Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto (whose $10 million option should be a no-brainer for the Reds if he's healthy), Hisashi Iwakuma (who has a what-a-bargain option with a $6 million marginal cost), Jon Lester, James Shields, and Justin Masterson on the next tier down. Some of those pitchers will have good years and become spectacularly wealthy, while others will be not quite as good and still become spectacularly wealthy, and some will sign extensions before the issue is resolved one way or another and never get to market. For those without pitching, it will be a long, cold winter.
The old -- by old we mean 2008-2009 -- high pitcher salary of $23 million a year was set by Johan Santana and CC Sabathia in 2008, which is to say that the largesse came from the Mets and Yankees, respectively, and the craziness could perhaps be written off as being something carried down by the Hudson River. Not including the Yankees' own self-immolating October 2011 extension with Sabathia, we've seen the New Yorkers topped twice by the Philadelphians, twice by the Los Angelinos, once by the Detroiters, and once by the, er, Seattleites. Either more teams are going to take advantage of the TV bucks to join the parade and reclassify themselves as big spenders or we're going to have a contentious negotiation come CBA expiration time.
And yet, as we've seen, insofar as Kershaw goes it's hard to say the Dodgers aren't doing exactly what they should be doing. Had they not signed him to this extension they would have paid him something in the range of $20 million in 2014, and, assuming he had a representative season, he would have made as much or more than $30 million on the open market given the going price of pitching. Arguably the Dodgers, rather than accelerating the rise of pitcher salaries, retarded it by getting a bit of a break on what would have been required to outbid the Yankees, Red Sox et al.
"Money itself," wrote the science-fiction novelist James Blish in 1958, "was a form of slavery." The Dodgers have committed themselves to overthrowing that greatest of taskmasters. Now we get to see if the rest of baseball will, at least to some extent, attempt to keep up with them. As for Kershaw, he needn't change a thing.