The Los Angeles Dodgers are keeping ace starter and two-time Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw around for a long time. The Dodgers have signed Kershaw to a seven-year, $215 million extension with a fifth-year opt-out. That contract makes Kershaw the highest-paid player on a per-year basis in baseball history, eclipsing Alex Rodriguez's New York Yankees extension. Kershaw will be earning a staggering $30.7 million annually until he almost certainly opts out at his age-30 season.
The contract is a landmark deal, and it is no surprise that the big-market Dodgers were able to make the signing to keep Kershaw away from free agency. What it also does is set a precedent above and beyond what players like Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez received in their recent contract extensions. For an ace at the tender age of 26 years old, this is the market price future teams will have to pay.
Well, guess who will be 26 years old in 2018, his final year before free agency? Jose Fernandez began his career at age 20, much like Kershaw, and the Marlins see a bright future in him following his Rookie of the Year-winning and Cy Young runner-up campaign. If Fernandez becomes everything the Marlins ever wanted him to be, however, it is very likely that it will end up in a gigantic pile of money.
Of course, we are years away from Fernandez being comparable to Kershaw. Consider everything that would have to go right for Fernandez to end up in Kershaw territory. Clayton Kershaw has never been on the disabled list and has thrown 1180 innings over five-plus seasons. He is averaging 219 innings a year, and he has surpassed that mark with great durability in each of the last three years. We marveled at Fernandez's shiny low ERA, but Kershaw led the majors in ERA for three years running, including posting an absurd 1.83 mark this season. The last time a pitcher had an ERA below 2.00 and qualified for the ERA title, it was Roger Clemens in Houston in 2005. Before that, we are talking Pedro Martinez-level performances. Even in this decreased run environment, that stuff just does not happen regularly; there have only been 30 such player-seasons since 1961.
Kershaw is not just manipulating good luck as well. Sure, he seems to have some preternatural skill with suppressing home runs, but there is more to his game than that. He boasts a career 25.4 percent strikeout rate and an 8.3 percent walk rate, numbers akin to what Jose Fernandez has posted in just one season in the bigs. We would have to stretch out Fernandez's 2013 season for much of his career to reach the heights that Kershaw has hit in the last three years.
So for Fernandez to earn a Kershaw contract in the future, he has to stay healthy and stay awesome. Remember the comparison to other historically great 20-year-old pitchers? Some of those names, such as Bert Blyleven and Bret Saberhagen, were on the list of names that Dave Cameron of FanGraphs used as contemporaries for Kershaw. You will recall that exactly half of the pitchers we listed in that previous link regressed to below their age-20 performances over the next three years. But that does not preclude Fernandez from being the next Kershaw; it just makes it very hard to project him five years down the line.
But if he does hit those milestones, you had better believe he will get paid. Fernandez is represented at the moment by super-agent Scott Boras, who would stop at nothing to get his client the highest-paid deal in history if Fernandez ended up as good as advertised. If Kershaw's agency (J.D. Smart and Excel Sports) squeezed $31 million annually for the best pitcher in recent times, Boras could probably could get someone to pay through their stadium's roof to acquire Fernandez long-term, either in an extension or through free agency.
If Marlins' fans' dreams come true, then Fernandez will be one of the best pitchers of this upcoming generation. But to keep him around, it will cost a team a hefty sum. Clayton Kershaw just proved us that much.
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