There is no finality in Clayton Kershaw’s future. There is uncertainty, which is why he took the mound at Dodger Stadium last Tuesday with thoughts beyond that night’s game.
Not too many thoughts, for Kershaw is an extraordinarily focused performer. The Colorado Rockies were in town, and the winner of that night’s game would leave the ballpark atop the National League West.
But there was that extra glance, that extra breath, that extra thought. Kershaw pitched his first home game for the Dodgers 10 years ago. He might have pitched his 164th and last regular-season home game for the Dodgers last Tuesday.
“I would be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind,” Kershaw said.
David Price, like Kershaw, can opt out of his contract at the end of the season. Price said this month he would not opt out. Kershaw hasn’t said.
“No one’s ever asked me,” Kershaw said Friday.
We’ll ask. Have you decided whether to opt out?
“No,” he said.
In spring training, Dodgers chairman Mark Walter said he hoped to make Kershaw a Dodger for life. Is that still the game plan?
“Sure,” Walter said Friday.
Kershaw almost certainly has clinched a spot in the Hall of Fame, with a plaque on which he would be sporting a Dodgers cap.
His decade of dominance speaks for itself: the only National League pitcher to win the league’s most valuable player award in the past half-century, three Cy Young awards, seven consecutive top-five Cy Young finishes, the lowest career earned-run average of any pitcher with at least 1,500 innings in the live-ball era. That dates back to 1920.
Opt out? That would have been a foregone conclusion a decade ago, when paying for past performance still was in vogue.
But, with the advent of analytics, a team might well project Kershaw’s value based on these numbers: 30 years old, a 3 mph drop in his fastball velocity, two trips to the disabled list this year, three consecutive years in which a back injury has put him on the disabled list.
If Kershaw does not opt out, the Dodgers owe him another two years and $65 million. Could he double that in free agency?
Of the 12 pitchers to sign contracts of at least $130 million, only one had thrown 2,000 innings when he signed: Zack Greinke, at 2,153, including the postseason.
Kershaw is at 2,207, with the last week of September and perhaps all of October to go.
The Times spoke with seven baseball insiders, on the agent side and on the team side, none working for Kershaw or the Dodgers, to get a sense of what might happen. The uneasy consensus: Kershaw stays with the Dodgers, but he has dropped so few clues that no one really knows.
Kershaw has reinvented himself as a pitcher, with less fastball and more slider, and without any significant decline in results. That is incredibly impressive, all the more so when he did not need a year or two for his new self to become effective.
A team could count on Kershaw for 150 innings per season, which counts as perfectly satisfactory in this era. And, according to one of the insiders, Kershaw is so driven that he might yet find a way to alter his mechanics and recover some velocity.
That might not be enough. Of the seven insiders, none thought Kershaw could match the seven years of his current contract, and only one thought Kershaw might get even five years.
One of the insiders wondered how many teams would be willing to offer $30 million per year to a starting pitcher. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, sure, but would Kershaw want to play in either city? The San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals? Maybe, but both of those teams are in flux. The Chicago Cubs?
“Clayton doesn’t strike me as the type of guy that wants to play wherever,” an insider said.
There could be a wild card as high bidder, like when the Arizona Diamondbacks struck for Greinke, or the Seattle Mariners for Robinson Cano.
One insider suggested the Angels, where they could risk a declining third or fourth year of Kershaw if the first two years were so good that they propelled the team toward the playoffs and persuaded Mike Trout to forego free agency.
The most logical suitor remains Kershaw’s hometown team, the Texas Rangers, with big oil money in ownership and a new ballpark to sell for 2020.
“The concept of layering in a quality free-agent addition, that’s appealing,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
With the Dodgers, Kershaw has a good chance to get to the playoffs every year, and a decent chance to get to the World Series.
“I’ve been very fortunate here, for sure,” he said. “To win five in a row, and seven times in the 10 years I’ve been here. That doesn’t happen everywhere, that’s for sure.”
The Rangers, after a run of five postseason appearances in seven years, finished 23 games out of first place last year, and they will finish in last place in the American League West this year. They fired their manager on Friday, they gave 24 starts to the ancient Bartolo Colon this season, and they are embarking on a rebuild.
Winning there might not happen soon enough for Kershaw.
“That’s true,” he said. “That’s very true.”
Kershaw has started 314 games for the Dodgers, the exact number Sandy Koufax did. What might be more important to Kershaw, his legacy with the Dodgers or the comfort of family back home?
“Both,” he said.
On a pure analytics play, the Dodgers could justify letting Kershaw walk away if he opts out of his contract. But, on a pure analytics play, the Dodgers would not have awarded closer Kenley Jansen the fifth year of his contract and would have lost him to the Washington Nationals.
The Dodgers’ ownership can extend Kershaw for another two years, committing him to four more years in Los Angeles, perhaps with an opt-out clause after 2020 so Kershaw can test the market if he has two healthy years.
Another $65 million is not cheap, but it is cheaper than signing Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. After the Dodgers spent $2 million in free agency last winter (hello, Tom Koehler) and dodged the luxury tax this summer, some fan-friendly spending would be welcome.
For all the storied history of the franchise, it has been 20 years since the Hall of Fame inducted a Dodger: Don Sutton, whose plaque listed five teams.