Clayton Kershaw’s historic opening day start for the Los Angeles Dodgers demonstrated why the 25- year-old left-hander, who elicits comparisons to Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, might become the first $200 million pitcher in Major League Baseball history.
Kershaw is making $11 million in the final season of a two- year contract with the Dodgers, who have spent more than $600 million on player acquisitions since Guggenheim Baseball Management purchased the club for $2.15 billion last year.
The market for elite pitchers has reached a high this year, with Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers getting an extension that guarantees him $180 million over the next seven seasons and Felix Hernandez signing a seven-year, $175 million deal with the Seattle Mariners before spring training. Kershaw may be next in line and his deal, in a sport measured by milestones, could set a new benchmark for pitchers.
“When he signs his next contract, he’ll be the first $30- million-a-year pitcher in baseball history,” Jim Bowden, the former general manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals and now an MLB analyst for ESPN, said in a telephone interview. “I project his next deal with the Dodgers will be eight years and $240 million. It’s pretty clear that being 25 years old and looking at the next 10 years of his upside that he’s the No. 1 guy on the board.”
Wayne McDonnell Jr., an associate professor of sports management at New York University, said the recent spike in salaries for elite starters such as Hernandez, Verlander, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke suggest that a $200 million contract is the next step for a player of Kershaw’s ability.
“We always talk about the dearth of elite, quality pitching in the game,” said McDonnell, who created the “Business of Baseball” course at NYU. “What we’re seeing is those unique players, they’re getting handsomely rewarded. Without question, the Verlander deal could be used as leverage in Kershaw’s camp for a deal of that magnitude.”
Kershaw, who won the National League Cy Young Award in 2011 at age 23 and was the runner-up last year, began the regular season two days ago by throwing a complete-game four-hitter in a 4-0 win against the San Francisco Giants. It made him the first pitcher to shut out a defending World Series champion on opening day since 1988, when Rick Rhoden of the New York Yankees blanked the Minnesota Twins.
Kershaw also broke a scoreless tie with an eighth-inning home run, becoming the first player to throw a shutout and hit a home run on opening day since Hall of Famer Bob Lemon in 1953.
Now in his sixth season with the Dodgers, Kershaw has a 62-37 record with a 2.77 earned run average. He went 35-14 the past two seasons with a 2.40 ERA and 477 strikeouts in 461 innings. His dominance has evoked comparisons to Koufax, the Hall of Fame left-hander who pitched for the Dodgers for 12 years and won three Cy Young Awards over his final four seasons before his career was cut short in 1966 by an elbow injury.
With Koufax throwing the first pitch of the Dodgers’ season and Kershaw’s final pitch ending opening day, catcher A.J. Ellis said it was “almost like a passing of the torch.”
Kershaw told reporters after his season debut that he’s honored by the comparisons to Koufax, but doesn’t “put merit into it. I’ve got a long way to go.” Kershaw has been even more reluctant to talk about his contract situation.
Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti told reporters before the start of spring training that there was “mutual interest” in extending Kershaw’s contract. Kershaw, who isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2014 season, has repeatedly declined to comment, though he said he didn’t want negotiations to extend into the season. If a new deal isn’t reached, the two sides would go to arbitration to determine his 2014 salary.
On Opening Day, Dodgers minority owner Magic Johnson told ESPN that Kershaw was the best in baseball and should be paid like it.
Kershaw’s agent, Casey Close, didn’t immediately return an e-mail seeking comment.
Close also represents Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke, who got a six-year, $147 million contract in December that made him the sport’s highest-paid right-handed pitcher. The contracts for Hernandez and Verlander, both right-handers, have since surpassed that. Greinke, Hernandez and Verlander won the AL Cy Young Award in successive years from 2009 through 2011.
The Dodgers, who in January partnered with Time Warner Cable Inc. (TWC:US) on a 25-year, $7 billion television deal, have a $213 million payroll this season, according to Yahoo Sports, an increase of almost 124 percent from 2012. Greinke has the team’s highest average salary, at $24.5 million, and Kershaw will surely top that, said Bowden, who was voted MLB’s executive of the year with the Reds in 1999.
“He’s going to have to be paid the premium amount,” said Bowden, who predicts the two sides will reach a long-term deal after this season. “With the national and local television deals blowing up like they are and the industry payrolls absolutely skyrocketing, the structure has changed.”
Four major leaguers have received contracts with a total value of at least $200 million, including Alex Rodriguez twice.
Rodriguez’s current deal with the New York Yankees, which runs through 2017, is for $275 million over 10 years. Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million), Joey Votto (10 years, $225 million) and Prince Fielder (9 years, $214 million) also surpassed the milestone for total value of their contracts.
“The Dodgers realize who they have on their hands, the immense talent, the type of individual he is and the kind of statistics he can produce,” McDonnell said. “If everything holds according to what the Dodgers plan, they could be on the verge of doing something very unique and special with the epicenter being Clayton Kershaw.”
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