Last night, it was announced that the Dodgers have extended pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s option decision deadline two extra days, to Friday afternoon. Originally, it was 11:59 PM Wednesday night, but it appears that one or both sides needed more time.
This offseason has one of the most talented free agent classes baseball has seen in a very long time. Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, and Bryce Harper are among the players who will be on the market this winter, and teams are getting ready to whip out their checkbooks and clear spaces in their locker rooms for a star who could put their team in the postseason.
Kershaw, the Dodgers’ pitching ace just struggled through yet another Los Angeles postseason loss. He’s been with the Dodgers since his MLB debut in 2008 (they drafted him in 2006), and it’s known that he would love to be a Dodger for life. But after their 6th straight postseason loss, and with his own stats trending downwards, the lefty might be looking for a deal with more personal security.
Unfortunately for Kershaw, this has been a season of decline. He continues to be beset by back problems and injuries, though, ironically, he did have the highest batting average of his career. For the third straight year, Kershaw failed to throw more than 175 innings, after at least 195 innings pitched every year from 2010-2015.
Of course, like his American League counterpart Chris Sale, even when he’s struggling, Clayton Kershaw is still better than almost every pitcher in baseball. Kershaw’s 2.73 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 161 1/3 IP, while excellent, actually qualify as his worst season in nearly a decade, when he posted a 2.91 ERA in 204 1/3 IP back in 2010. But he’d still be an automatic upgrade for almost any team, and there are plenty, like the Yankees, who would pay beaucoup bucks to add a pitcher of his caliber to their starting rotation. The strategy certainly paid off for his former teammate Zack Greinke, who opted out of his last three years in LA and received a much more lucrative deal worth twice as many years from Arizona back in 2015.
One of the biggest concerns with the pitching ace is that his fastball velocity has dropped considerably, and the percentage of hard-hit balls off his pitches has skyrocketed. To counteract his slowed fastball velocity, Kershaw threw the second-most sliders of any pitcher in baseball this year who pitched at least 160 innings; only Jhoulys Chacin threw more. Unfortunately, Kershaw’s devotion to his regiment and routine, one of the main reasons he’s such a formidable pitcher, is also a reason he might not be able to overhaul his pitching arsenal, something ballclubs would want him to do if they were to sign him to a long-term deal.
Kershaw also has not been the most effective postseason pitcher, a problem that until very recently (read: this month) drew comparisons to David Price’s October record. Despite three Cy Youngs, a Triple Crown, and a truckload of accolades, Clayton Kershaw has struggled in the highest-pressure time of the year. In 22 postseason innings this October, he posted a 4.20 ERA, not far off from his career postseason 4.32 ERA in 152 innings. Against the Red Sox in the World Series, he went 0-2 in two starts, with a 7.36 ERA over 11 innings, giving up 14 hits, 9 earned runs, and walking three men. He’s now 9-10 in postseason games in his career, and 1-4 in elimination games. And for the second straight year, the Dodgers were forced to watch another team win the ultimate prize on their field.
Kershaw has three options: he can exercise the opt-out in his contract and join the free agent class. He can pass on the opt-out, and stay with the Dodgers for two years and $70 million left on his contract. Or, and most likely, he and the team can work out an extension that would replace the current remainder of his contract, likely lowering the annual paycheck, but giving him a few more years and money overall.
My guess is that Kershaw and the Dodgers will come to an extension agreement that lowers his AAV, but gives him the security of a longer deal. As a player older than 30, this is likely his last chance to secure a longer-term, more lucrative deal. He probably wouldn’t get $35M/year on the open market, but he’d get an overall deal worth far more than the $70 million the Dodgers would owe him over the next two years. Opting out either works as leverage against the Dodgers, or gets him paid by another team. Houston or Philadelphia, perhaps?