Predicting Clayton Kershaw’s Next Contract

The Ace That Is Always Gonna Ace enters the final year of his deal.

So now what?

With the news of Andrew Friedman and the Dodgers signing reigning Cy Young award winner Trevor Bauer to a three-year, $102 million deal in February, the Dodgers are now looking at a squeeze on the pitching mound. With seven starting pitchers vying for only five spots, there will undoubtedly be a lack of available innings to go around in 2021, even with the aggressive shuffling the Dodgers do with their staff.

What’s more, is that this squeeze is looking unlikely to relent in the coming seasons. Young guns Julio Urías, Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin will be the first to feel the impact of the signing, as they were already clawing for opportunities without Bauer. Urías is still under team control for another three seasons, while May has five remaining years, and Gonsolin six. With staff ace Walker Buehler just entering his arbitration years, it’s already pretty crowded. Throw in potentially three years of Trevor Bauer (barring opt-outs), and you already have a full staff. Oh! And don’t forget David Price.

Are we missing anyone?

Oh yeah, Clayton Kershaw. You know, the most dominant pitcher of the last generation and one of the greatest Dodgers of all time. That Clayton Kershaw.

As it turns out, the venerable southpaw will soon be a free agent, with his three-year, $93 million contract extension expiring at the end of this season. Kershaw has been a Dodger lifer, and Chavez Ravine has been the only place the future Hall of Famer has called home since he debuted in 2008. It’s impossible to imagine him in the colors of any other team.

And yet…

It appears the writing is starting to appear on the wall for the veteran. Kershaw turned 33 last week and will be entering his age-34 season by the time he becomes a free agent at the end of the year. Of course, the ace has aged more gracefully than most to this point in his career, but his mounting back injuries have seemingly made reaching 200 innings just that — a reach.

Still, Kershaw has remained incredibly effective. Laughably, his “worst” season was in 2019, when he posted a 3.03 ERA with 189 strikeouts over 178.1 innings. It was the highest earned run mark of his career, discounting his rookie season, and he was still a top 15 pitcher. What would be considered elite for anyone else, was relatively disappointing for Kershaw.

Then, just as it appeared he was finally coming back to Earth, Kershaw found a way to squeeze out an extra burst of velocity in 2020. After four straight years of declining velocity, he found an extra 1.3 mph in the tank, and his fastball jumped up to a blistering 91.6 mph.

He finished the shortened season with a vintage 2.16 ERA and 3.22 SIERA in ten starts, along with a sterling 0.84 WHIP. Kershaw continued to pitch well in the playoffs, posting a 2.93 ERA across his five October appearances. And finally, after years of heartbreak, he took home his first World Series championship at the end of it all.

Entering the offseason, some speculated the ace might actually retire, now that he had finally slain the postseason demon that had haunted his career thus far. Hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy was the final achievement left for Kershaw, and for many, the perception was that he had little left to accomplish in the sport. Kershaw could hang up his spikes tomorrow and be inducted as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and after a legendary career, he has absolutely nothing left to prove.

After some vague comments in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, some were left wondering if 2021 would be Kershaw’s last hurrah — a final victory lap as his contract was set to expire in the offseason.

“I’ll just say, I don’t know,” Kershaw said. “I have no idea. I do know that I still love it and I have a blast.”

Fortunately, however, Kershaw quashed the rumors of his impending retirement days later in his first media session of the 2021 season.

“I want to reevaluate at the end of every year and see how we’re doing — as a family, myself personally, where we are as a team — and then just make a decision from there. I have no intentions of hanging them up. I’m only 32. I feel like I have more years left in the tank,” he said.

With the knowledge that Kershaw will likely be sticking around a few years longer, attention shifts ahead to his looming free agency. Barring an extension, it will be Kershaw’s second time testing the waters of free agency — however, he quickly re-signed to a three-year deal after opting out in his first round in 2019. With presumably just a few years left in his career, his next contract will likely be his last, unless he opts to reassess season-to-season with one-year deals.

And while the Dodgers are entering 2021 with a loaded $237.5 million payroll, they also have a considerable amount of money coming off of the books next offseason, when Kershaw and fellow homegrown star Corey Seager are eligible for free agency. After the season, Chris Taylor, Kenley Jansen, and Corey Knebel will also be free agents, and the Dodgers will have finished paying off the final $8.5 million still owed to Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda. This all roughly equates to an $87.8 million drop in payroll entering 2022, which the team can (should) use to reinvest in its players moving forward.

Seager is likely to command a fair chunk of the salary as one of the premier shortstops on the market next year (assuming they re-sign him), but the team will retain some flexibility for additional signings and retainments, and may even be able to come back in under the league’s luxury tax threshold in 2022 depending on how they structure their contracts.

Of course, the point here is that despite compiling a current rotation worth almost as much as some teams’ entire payrolls, the Dodgers have more than enough room to keep Kershaw in Los Angeles for the remainder of his career.

So what will this hypothetical contract look like? By taking a look at similar deals signed by pitchers in the past few years, we can start to project the details.

 

SP Contracts

 

While there hasn’t been a pitcher quite at Kershaw’s level to enter free agency at his age, this group adds some context as to what the market might look like for the ace next offseason. Kershaw — or any pitcher for that matter — is obviously unlikely to take home a deal in the triple digits entering his age-34 season, especially in today’s market where teams are more reluctant than ever to hand out large contracts to aging stars.

He’s also grown beyond the age when Greinke or Strasburg got their massive deals to lock down their 30s; however, a short contract conveniently aligns with Kershaw’s seemingly year-to-year approach to baseball moving forward anyway. Even still, the seasons that Kershaw does have left will likely be worth the price of admission, even as Father Time takes its toll. So how much are they worth?

First, let’s take a look at what Kershaw has done since turning 30:

 

Clayton Kershaw Ages 30-32

 

While Kershaw has undoubtedly begun his trip down the other side of the aging curve in recent years, it’s not like he dropped off of a cliff when he entered his 30s. Each year there is growing discourse about Kershaw’s declining stuff, and for good reason: his average fastball velocity dipped to around 90mph in 2018 and 2019 and is once again sitting between 88-90 mph in his Spring Training appearances so far in 2021. In a game that is more and more dominated by velocity than when Kershaw debuted, that raw data doesn’t inspire great confidence, especially as he finds himself among a staff of young Dodger arms that can dial it up to triple digits.

Still, Kershaw has remained incredibly effective. As his velocity has diminished, he’s altered his pitch mix to throw fewer fastballs than ever, and has increased his reliance on his exceptional breaking pitches to adjust. Thus far, the results have been great. Since turning 30, he’s ranked 5th in ERA, 6th in WHIP, and 7th in BB% among all qualified pitchers, and is in the top 30 for both K% and innings pitched.

While it’s obviously not the prime, left-arm-of-God Kershaw that we saw at his peak, he’s still a top 15 pitcher in MLB and would certainly be an ace on any team in baseball. Of course, you may be thinking, “Obviously he’s still a good pitcher,” but it bears repeating that while he has been trending down, a declining Kershaw is still fairly exceptional relative to the rest of the league.

Looking ahead to the rest of next year’s free agency class, Kershaw headlines a relatively weak (or at least old) crop of pitchers. Along with Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer will also presumably be hitting the open market, barring any retirements. Kershaw is the youngest of that group, as the others are coming up on 40 in the coming seasons, though his arm has pitched its fair share of innings as well. In addition, Marcus Stroman will be a free agent after the season, and could also be a top target for teams looking to strengthen their rotations.

As one of the top aces on the market next offseason, Kershaw will command a little more leverage in contract negotiations, especially if Los Angeles remains reluctant to give their young pitchers a shot at a full-time role in 2022.

 

The Verdict

 

After weighing the many factors surrounding Clayton Kershaw‘s impending free agency, I project the veteran will sign a deal worth $81,000,000 over the next three seasons as he finishes out his career in Los Angeles. And while Kershaw has gone on record that he doesn’t place a ton of importance on legacy or wearing one jersey for his entire career, I highly doubt he leaves for another team, as any other suitor would likely be a step back in terms of being able to compete for another World Series title.

There have always been rumors about a move back to Texas to be closer to his home, but the Rangers are looking like a doubtful destination as they are currently in the middle of a rebuild. The Astros, despite being the stronger team, seem considerably less likely, for obvious reasons. And while an average annual value of $27,000,000 may seem steep to some, short commitment, high AAV contracts are also a defining trait of the Dodgers’ front office under Andrew Friedman. There is also the possibility that Kershaw agrees to a two-year deal, with an option for a third year should he choose to continue playing, similar to the contract signed by his teammate Justin Turner in February.

But beyond simply crunching the numbers, Clayton Kershaw means the world to Los Angeles and its people. He’s been an outstanding leader and humanitarian throughout his career in Dodger Blue, and a representative of excellence both on and off the field. In a time when character flaws are more scrutinized than ever, Kershaw has been a model of using one’s platform and status to lift others up. He has been a fixed point through regime changes, through mediocrity, and through incredible success, and deserves to be rewarded for it.

Besides, it would only be right for Kershaw to retire in the city in which he debuted as a scrawny 20-year-old all those years ago. Sign him to a deal, and get to work on his statue.

 

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Noah Scott

Noah Scott is a long-suffering baseball writer and knuckleball connoisseur. If you want to talk old timey baseball names, traffic on the 405, or lukewarm hip-hop opinions you can find him on Twitter @noahascott6

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