MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals

Update! Right on cue, the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw agreed to a seven-year, $215 million contract extension with an opt-out option after five years – the highest annual average value contract in baseball history.

It doesn’t matter how much money your cable deal is worth or how much equity your billion dollar franchise earns each year – $300 million is a lot of money. For one baseball player, that is an unbelievable amount of money on one contract.

If that contract stretches into the range of ten or twelve years, it is understandable if even the gun slingingest general manager blanches at the thought. For a pitcher? Heart attack territory.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the eye of the storm right now. They have the money and they have the desire and, most importantly, they have the player. The Dodgers stand poised to ink Clayton Kershaw to a record-setting deal – a deal that could smash previously held standards for dollar amounts, term, everything. As easy as it might be to question the wisdom of a such a contract given orthodox thinking on the volatile nature of pitchers, one niggling thought stays in the back of my mind: if Clayton Kershaw isn’t good enough to throw conventional wisdom out the window, then who is?

“Nobody” is the answer we’re looking for here. Nobody or Mike Trout. Franchise-defining generational talents, the kind of players that fuel the “rebuild through the draft” fire, creating a roaring inferno in the minds of fans. They call them generational talents for a reason – they come around so rarely.

It is important to remember a few key details about Clayton Kershaw. Number one – he’s the best pitcher in baseball. Number two – he is 25-years old. Those are two not-insignificant points in favor of backing up three trucks full of money to Clayton Kershaw’s palatial estate. He’s 25-years old and has two Cy Young awards to his name. He’s been one of the top pitchers in the game since age-21. The Dodgers selected him out of a Dallas-area high school in 2006, sparing him the arm-shredding indignity of college baseball.

The workload Kershaw’s carried as a young pitcher is quite remarkable. Not many left-handed pitchers in the expansion era can claim his rare combination of durability and excellence.

Left-handed starters with more than 1000 IP through age-25, sorted by WAR

Rk Player WAR IP From To Age
1 Frank Tanana 32.5 1411.1 1973 1979 19-25
2 Clayton Kershaw 32.2 1180.0 2008 2013 20-25
3 Fernando Valenzuela 27.9 1554.2 1980 1986 19-25
4 Sam McDowell 23.4 1305.0 1961 1968 18-25
5 Jon Matlack 21.3 1017.0 1971 1975 21-25
6 CC Sabathia 19.2 1165.1 2001 2006 20-25
7 Dick Ellsworth 17.9 1165.0 1961 1965 21-25
8 Vida Blue 17.8 1367.2 1969 1975 19-25
9 Dontrelle Willis 17.1 1022.2 2003 2007 21-25
10 Ken Holtzman 17.0 1276.1 1965 1971 19-25
11 Jim Abbott 16.8 1061.0 1989 1993 21-25
12 Don Gullett 13.9 1187.0 1970 1976 19-25
13 Steve Avery 12.6 1091.1 1990 1995 20-25
14 Dave McNally 10.3 1097.2 1962 1968 19-25
15 Ross Grimsley 8.2 1094.0 1971 1975 21-25
16 Jerry Reuss 7.0 1076.2 1969 1974 20-25
17 Ray Sadecki 1.5 1040.1 1961 1966 20-25
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/15/2014.

For some, the above chart might give pause, given the less than glamorous aging curve of pitchers like Dontrelle Willis and Fernando Venezuela. Even Frank Tanana, for all his late-career goodness, shows the odds are stacked against power pitchers at all times.

But like Tanana, or CC Sabathia, Kershaw is not a league-average plugger hoping to hang on when his decline eventually begins. He’s a superstar, a rare breed with hardware and plaudits for days. If he gets worse during the back half of his contract, he’s still very good. He’s getting better year after year as he refines his approach and integrates new pitches into his arsenal. Still a human being made of flesh and bone, there aren’t many red flags other than his unorthodox (but highly repeatable) delivery.

Courtesy of BaseballSavant.com

Courtesy of BaseballSavant.com

He’s never been hurt, he’s a true student of the game. As noted in theScore’s feature on Kershaw, the big lefty puts in the work when he could easily rest on his other-worldly stuff. Stuff so good that hitters all but abandon their normal plans at the plate when facing the Dodgers ace.

Kershaw’s main catcher A.J. Ellis noticed a recent trend – hitters taking aggressive swings against Kershaw early in the count to avoid falling behind and introducing more of his weapons with two strikes.

[we] try to read the swings of the hitter and how they approach their at bats. Clayton, he has such great strikeout stuff so hitters are trying to be more and more aggressive on him early in the count. He’s been able to get a lot of cheap, early in the count outs. Which is great when you get the outs because it keeps his pitch count low and doesn’t show as many pitches to the hitters. So maybe later in the game they haven’t seen the curveball yet because the swung at the first pitch the first couple times.

If the Dodgers can’t break the bank for Kershaw, they should take their TV dollars and bury them deep in the Chavez Ravine. Go full Astros – line their roster with pre-arb players and hope for the best. There are some players who are worth breaking policy for, who are with eschewing marginal surplus value and recognizing that the opportunity to sign a player of his calibre long-term is a blessing, not a curse (not that the Dodgers haven’t already banked enough value to last a lifetime off Kershaw’s pre-arb seasons.) If you have what it takes to keep him, how can you not do it?

There is always risk with pitchers. By signing the biggest deal in baseball history, the Dodgers would assume more financial risk than any other team in baseball history. But if there is one player — and one team — worth considering such a plunge, who could it be but Clayton Kershaw? Given the state of the game right now, if LA doesn’t offer him this sort of deal, somebody else will. How much risk is their in letting a franchise tentpole walk to a rival?

Clayton Kershaw in Angels red? Or Yankee pinstripes? That’s the sort of risk nobody in the Dodgers front office can afford to take.