Even before he took the mound to twirl a playoff masterpiece, the talk was it could be the last time Clayton Kershaw — who has an opt-out clause in the contract that will pay him $65 million the next two years — wears the Dodgers home whites.
That would be bad for the Dodgers on two fronts.
No. 1, it would mean they lose the next two games in Milwaukee and fall short of the World Series. No. 2, it would mean they lose a pitcher who is in the conversation just after Sandy Koufax when it comes to the all-time Dodger greats.
Don’t fear, Dodger fans. It’s highly doubtful Kershaw is going anywhere.
The ace lefty was coy talking about possible free agency before his start Wednesday in Los Angeles, when he redeemed himself for a dismal performance in Game 1 of the NLCS by pitching three-hit ball over seven innings as the Dodgers moved within a game of the World Series with a 5-2 win.
He said the kind of things a player is supposed to say to avoid tipping off his thoughts or alienating any of his fans.
“I have not made a decision,” Kershaw said. “And to my understanding you get 10 days after the World Series. So should be a busy 10 days.”
Kershaw has the contractual right to opt out of the seven-year deal signed in 2014 that pays him $215 million, and to use the leverage that comes with it. That’s likely, at the very least, to get him a few more years at the same kind of money he’s making today.
Make no mistake about it, that money is huge. Kershaw is making $34 million this year, putting him just behind Angels outfielder Mike Trout after leading the highest-paid list for the previous three years.
And, for the most part, Kershaw has earned his pay. He’s an astonishing 153-69 in 11 years as a Dodger, with an ERA of 2.39 and a WAR (wins above replacement) of 62.1.
But his innings are in decline, partly because of injury and partly because of the way baseball is evolving. Kershaw’s ERA has inched up as his fastball has gone down in velocity, and he’s no longer the automatic win Dodger fans pencil him in for every time he takes the mound.
By itself, that might not be enough for teams to pass on emptying the wallet to sign him. There aren’t many impact players like Kershaw, and the idea of him taking the mound every five days would have any general manager salivating.
But baseball doesn’t value the starting pitcher like it used to, which was on display in Wednesday’s game when Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell removed starter Wade Miley after just five pitches. The move was unconventional and made mostly because Counsell hoped the Dodgers would load their lineup with right-handed hitters, but the trend across baseball is toward using starters less and replacing them with multiple relievers.
Fox analyst and Hall of Famer John Smoltz believes the analytical age is causing teams to rethink the traditional rotation. It’s cheaper — and sometimes more effective — to have pitchers throw as hard as they can for as long as they can, he says, and then replace them with another pitcher who can do the same.
“It’s hard-pressed for me to think that at the end of the day this is not just a cheaper version of baseball,” Smoltz said earlier this year. “You can operate your team paying guys less and utilizing them in their younger years when they’re not making so much. Burn and churn and just keep shuffling the deck in the bullpen.”
Kershaw’s value to the Dodgers was also questioned when he was passed over as Game 1 starter in the division series against Atlanta. Kershaw was miffed, then went out to pitch eight innings of two-hit ball to win Game 2.
But he stumbled when picked to start the NLCS, not getting an out in the fourth inning before being pulled. And while he rebounded against the Brewers in Game 5, the knock on Kershaw is that, for all his greatness, he has underperformed at crucial times in the postseason and has yet to deliver the Dodgers a World Series title.
That could change in the next two weeks as the Dodgers chase their first championship in 30 years. It might also convince the Dodgers to add as many years onto Kershaw’s contract as he will likely want.
It will be money well spent, because Kershaw is as much an institution in LA as the great Dodger pitchers of the past. Vin Scully himself has compared him to Koufax except, of course, for the fact Koufax won three World Series rings in Los Angeles.
No matter what happens in Milwaukee, though, expect Kershaw to remain a Dodger for years to come.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg