GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Los Angeles Dodgers and their superstar pitcher Clayton Kershaw, to this point, have kept things very close to the vest when it comes to the contract negotiations between the marquee franchise and their franchise player. However, on Saturday, Dodgers owner Mark Walter at least made things clear where he stands on Kershaw, whose contractual opt-out at year’s end promises to be one of the biggest storylines of the year.
“He’s a Dodger,” Walter told FanRag Sports before the Dodgers’ spring training game against the rival Diamondbacks. “He should be a Dodger for life.”
After saying he “absolutely” wanted Kershaw to remain with the team, Walter summed up his feelings this way:
“I couldn’t possibly say anything that hasn’t been said about Clayton Kershaw – He’s something special.”
While Walter’s remark about wanting Kershaw to be “a Dodger for life” can’t be considered a surprise, it’s also the most anyone’s said to this point about the most important off-field piece of business hanging over the great organization at the moment.
Kershaw, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game and still only 29, is one of the most private, too. Yet, he immediately seemed pleased to hear the kind words from the boss, the same boss who signed Kershaw to the $215 million, seven-year deal less than two years into his tenure as Dodgers owner – the one with the opt-out at season’s end.
“That’s cool. That’s good,” said Kershaw in response to Walter’s comments, before expanding on his feelings about the organization.
Kershaw — by design — has said next to nothing about the negotiations that could solidify the best pitcher in the game’s standing as an all-time great Dodger or rock the baseball world, depending on how they go. Kershaw has $65 million and two years remaining on his then-record seven-year contract (at the time it was the biggest pitcher deal and the largest annual salary, but has been surpassed by a bit on both counts since), and realistically, is all but certain to at least employ the opt-out to better his financial situation, as is his right.
There’s been no inkling how things are going to this point in the talks, or even if there are talks, with the Dodgers sticking to the party line that there’s an “open dialogue” until now. However, it sounded like Walter provided a strong hint nothing’s close yet, or perhaps even in concrete discussion.
“He likes to wait until the end, and I don’t blame him,” Walter said.
Kershaw suggested as much himself, saying he’s spending his time preparing for the season, when he’ll aim to win his fourth Cy Young award, and not worrying about his contract, which contains the most talked-about opt-out in baseball.
“I’m not thinking about it,” Kershaw said of his contractual situation.
That said, he didn’t hide his feelings about the Dodgers. While there may have been a tense moment here or there, as is natural in any 12-year relationship – for instance, it can be assumed he wasn’t in favor of the team trading one of his best friends, A.J. Ellis – the relationship has worked spectacularly for both sides. What’s more, on Saturday he didn’t hide his very positive feelings about the franchise. The Dodgers certainly have recognized his historic stature and obvious smarts, and he seems to at least be listened to on major decisions (sources say he was among those at the forefront who favored Dave Roberts to win the managing job, though of course that decision was made by baseball president Andrew Friedman).
“I love it here. It’s great,” Kershaw said.
“I’ve had an amazing run here,” he continued. “And I don’t take that for granted. Not many guys can say they get to go to the playoffs (almost) every year, or even that they have a chance to go to the playoffs every year.”
Presumably, the Dodgers wouldn’t mind getting something done sooner rather than later, though they probably understand things seem destined to wait until year’s end – or much closer to it, anyway. Kershaw’s great friend Zack Greinke had a somewhat similar situation a couple years ago, and following a runner-up finish for the Cy Young in 2015, he opted out of $71 million and three years, and wound up signing with the rival D-backs for $206.5 million over six years after they outbid the Dodgers by about $40 million.
But while there are similarities, Greinke, for all his great accomplishments, would be the first to admit neither he nor anyone else is the category of the great home-grown star Kershaw, who’s won three Cy Young awards and an MVP, who even when he doesn’t win, has a strong likelihood to finish second (he’s done that twice), as even Walter himself pointed out Saturday. In a feat only he has accomplished, Kershaw’s been in the top-five in Cy Young voting each of the last seven years, and finished second again last year (to Washington’s Max Scherzer) after leading the league in wins (he was 18-4) and ERA (2.31) while striking out 202 batters in 175 innings despite a minor back ailment.
The Dodgers have set themselves up nicely to spend after the year (and vitally, to retain their biggest star without an ominous tax situation) by somehow getting below the $197 million luxury-tax threshold sooner than anyone thought possible, thanks largely to the ingenious trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Charlie Culberson to the Braves for Matt Kemp and significantly lowered their 2018 commitment. That trade put them into a much stronger financial position to add other stars — Bryce Harper’s rumored to be a possibility, as he’s from not-far Las Vegas, Dodgers president Stan Kasten helped get him signed out of the draft with the Nats and he’d give them perhaps baseball’s best lineup — but most obviously and importantly to retain the biggest star they’ve had since Sandy Koufax, another all-time great left-hander who famously spent his whole career as a Dodger.
It’s hard to see Kershaw going anywhere else or performing in any other uniform, though any successful franchise would have interest and there have been rumors that his hometown Texas Rangers (he’s from Dallas) could be a possibility. Anything’s possible, of course, and sometimes major negotiations go off in unexpected directions (before he signed that last big deal, there were several fits and starts over a several-month period).
In any case, Walter has made clear where the organization stands. And Kershaw, in a fairly rare moment, opened up (if just a bit) about his feelings.
“I realize how fortunate I am to be here,” Kershaw said. “We’ll see what happens at the end of the year.”