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Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Kershaw baseball's first $30 million man

By David Schoenfield

The Dodgers didn't have to sign Clayton Kershaw to a long-term contract before the drop-dead date on Masahiro Tanaka hits Jan. 24, but it made sense to do so.

The decision on whether to pursue Tanaka with all checkbooks blazing is now an easier one to make with the front office knowing the Dodgers will have $215 million committed to Kershaw to go with the $128 million committed to Zack Greinke. Reports indicate Tanaka may get $120 million, so if the Dodgers win the bidding sweepstakes, you'll be talking about $463 million for just three pitchers.

Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale pitched in the wrong era.

But here's the thing: $215 million for seven years actually sounds ... clear the throat ... reasonable. Even if it does make Kershaw the first player who will average $30 million per year over the life of his contract. Let's examine some numbers.

Here are the largest total value contracts for pitchers:

Clayton Kershaw: $215 million, 2014-2020
Justin Verlander: $180 million, 2013-2019
Felix Hernandez: $175 million, 2013-2019
CC Sabathia: $161 million, 2009-2015
Zack Greinke: $147 million, 2013-2018
Cole Hamels: $144 million, 2013-2018
Johan Santana: $137.5 million, 2008-2013
Matt Cain: $127.5 million, 2012-2017

The top four guys all got seven years, the next four got six years. (Sabathia had an out clause and later negotiated a five-year, $122 million deal that went from 2012 to 2016.) Like Hamels and Cain, Kershaw signed his deal in his final season before reaching free agency. Why did he get so much more? It's pretty simple: He's better. Here are all eight pitchers with their totals in the two seasons before the first year of the contract:

Kershaw: 2.17 ERA, 463.2 IP, 169 ERA+, 14.0 WAR
Verlander: 2.52 ERA, 489.1 IP, 166 ERA+, 16.2 WAR
Hernandez: 3.27 ERA, 465.2 IP, 116 ERA+, 8.4 WAR
Sabathia: 2.95 ERA, 494 IP, 148 ERA+, 13.1 WAR
Greinke: 3.63 ERA, 384 IP, 109 ERA+, 5.1 WAR
Hamels: 2.92 ERA, 431.1 IP, 135 ERA+, 11.2 WAR
Santana: 3.04 ERA, 452.2 IP, 144 ERA+, 12.5 WAR
Cain: 3.01 ERA, 445 IP, 123 ERA+, 8.2 WAR

Adjusted ERA and WAR figures from Baseball-Reference.com.

Only Verlander can match up statistically with Kershaw, but the advantage Kershaw had over the Tigers' ace is he'll play the first year of his deal at 26 while Verlander played his at 30.

That age difference is a huge factor in projecting future value. In fact, earlier today, ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski broke down why Kershaw could be worth more than $300 million:
ZiPS views Kershaw to be worth 50.9 WAR over the next 10 seasons, taking Kershaw even past the career mark estimated for future Hall of Famers.

At $5.45 million per WAR (ZiPS has revised this figure upward based on this winter's contracts) and 5 percent inflation, that comes out to a whopping $338 million valuation. Even knocking off $15 million to $20 million to account for the fact that the contract is likely to buy out one arbitration year, meaning Kershaw would not get full price, there's clearly an argument for him surpassing that $300 million line.

That 50 wins above replacement is a projection over 10 seasons, not seven, but you get the idea. If he stays healthy, Kershaw should join the pantheon of greatest-ever pitchers.

How realistic is 50 WAR? Or even 40 WAR over seven seasons (5.7 per year)? Over the past 25 years, only three pitchers have achieved 40 WAR during their age-26 to age-32 seasons:

Greg Maddux: 54.7
Pedro Martinez: 53.7
Roger Clemens: 43.5

The only others above 35 are Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina, David Cone and Sabathia. Of course, some pitchers -- such as Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling -- end up peaking in their 30s. That's an unlikely scenario for Kershaw, considering he's pretty much at his peak right now (the dude had a 1.83 ERA in 2013) and reached the majors at such a young age. The Dodgers handled him carefully early in his career, and while all pitchers are health risks -- see Santana -- Kershaw has made 33 starts each of the past three seasons and 30-plus all five full years in the majors.

Yes, you can point to Cain's bad season or Verlander's subpar (for him) 2013. But Cain just isn't in Kershaw's class and it's early to say Verlander won't go back to his 2011-12 level.

Kershaw is durable, he's dominant and now he's a Dodger for a long time.

Enjoy him, L.A.