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Why Clayton Kershaw's record payday is bad news for free agents
Robinson Cano-type mega deals may soon be the exception, not the rule
 
It's lonely up there at the top.
It's lonely up there at the top. (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Photos courtesy of Getty Images and Thinkstock)

Clayton Kershaw is going to get paid all the money.

On Wednesday, he and the Dodgers agreed to a record seven-year, $215 million pact. It's the biggest contract ever given to a starting pitcher, and the first for any player with an average annual value above $30 million.

Money aside, though — and indeed that's Scrooge McDuck money — the deal is notable in that Kershaw was one year away from free agency. Neither he nor the Dodgers needed the fresh ink just yet.

Still, the contract should come as no surprise. Rather, it's indicative of a general trend in the game of teams locking up their best young players long before they can test the open market.

To be sure, it's not an entirely new concept. The Indians, under then-general manager John Hart, made a habit of buying out the arbitration-eligible years and, in some cases, first free agent years of their best players in the 1990s. But with the recent explosion of baseball money, thrifty teams — either by choice or circumstance — have embraced the approach wholeheartedly.

"To survive in this market, and to survive in baseball, you almost have to do it," Sandy Alomar Jr., a former player who took such an offer two decades ago, and who now coaches with the Indians, said in 2012.

In recent years, we've seen this practice taken to the next level. Last year alone, the Giants signed Buster Posey to a nine-year, $167 million contract, with a tenth-year club option; the Diamondbacks signed Paul Goldschmidt to a five-year, $32 million extension; and the Rangers locked up Elvis Andrus for eight years and $120 million. All three are among the game's best young players, and all could have waited to pursue more money in free agency.

The small-market Tampa Bay Rays, one of baseball's best teams at squeezing value out of every penny, exemplified this approach a half-decade ago with third baseman Evan Longoria.

In 2008, just one week after Longoria made his pro debut, the Rays signed him to a nine-year, $44 million contract. For Tampa, it was a huge gamble with a potentially huge reward: Longoria was a top prospect, but completely unproven at the major league level. If he met or exceeded expectations, the deal would look like a pittance; if he failed, they'd still be on the hook for a hefty tab.

The deal couldn't have worked better for the Rays. Longoria has been the most valuable player in baseball, per WAR, since his debut. Hence, his contract was routinely regarded as the most team-friendly in the game. That is, until the two sides replaced the final years of that deal with a 10-year, $100 million contract that runs through 2023, essentially doubling-down on the "no free agency" plan.

Longoria's situation neatly sums up the potentially win-win nature of these contracts.

For teams, they get to retain top talent at what could be a bargain rate. That's especially tantalizing given that free-agency team-building has become increasingly expensive yet remains no less risky. Think Albert Pujols, who just two years into a decade-long, $240 million contract is already a bust, or Robinson Cano, who might make the Mariners look very silly in a few years if they crumble beneath the weight of his bloated contract.

For players, they get a guaranteed payday, a crucial piece of security in a game where anyone can fizzle with seemingly no warning, or succumb to a career-altering injury. They may not get as much money as they would in free agency, but hey, they're still getting millions and millions of dollars, which isn't too shabby.

In Kershaw's case, it's quite possible a bidding war for his services in 2015 would have guaranteed him that $300 million deal Robinson Cano wanted this year, if not more. And in that sense, the Dodgers — yes, the spend-happy, bottomless-pocketed, burn-all-the-money Dodgers — just signed the game's best pitcher to a bargain contract.

There's no guarantee that Kershaw's deal, and the others like it, will actually lead to a radical change in how teams approach free agency. There will probably always be some win-hungry front office willing to pay whatever it takes to land a desired free agent; if Mike Trout is ever up for grabs, you can bet the Yankees will woo him with the promise of one if not several private islands.

And there's also the chance that, if more players opt not to test free agency, a mad scramble will ensue for the smaller bunch of big names who do test the waters, further driving up the price of free agents.

Still, the approach is at least gaining traction, even among baseball's richest teams. The Red Sox are doing it; the Dodgers are doing it. Maybe the Yankees will, too.

 
Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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