The Dodgers and ace left-hander Clayton Kershaw made history on Wednesday by agreeing to a massive seven-year, $215 million contract. The deal will be made official on Friday. It is the largest pitching contract in history (by $35 million) and largest contract in history in terms of average annual value (by $3.2 million).
It wasn't until CC Sabathia five years ago that a pitcher crossed the $150 million threshold, and it wasn't until Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander early last year that a pitcher crossed the $175 million threshold. Kershaw zoomed beyond $200 million because of a perfect storm: he's only 25, he's won two Cy Youngs in the last three years, he's the best pitcher in the world, and he was only a year from free agency. He might have sold himself short by taking "only" $215 million, really.
It might be a while, but it is only a matter of time until we see another $200+ million pitcher. Baseball is more financially healthy now than ever before thanks to these massive television contracts, both local and national. Who are the top candidates to be the next $200 million pitcher? It's a short list. Let's look. (Players are listed alphabetically.)
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year challenged Kershaw for the Cy Young despite not turning 21 until midseason. Fernandez won't be arbitration-eligible until after the 2015 season or eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season, so he has a long way to go before making the big bucks. He is off to a great start and is still so very young though, so if he stays healthy and maintains this level of performance, he's a lock for $200 million down the road. Chances are it won't be the Marlins that give it to him, however.
Harvey was also in that NL Cy Young mix last season, at least until blowing out his elbow late in the season. That will derail him a bit, plus he is only one year younger than Kershaw with five more years to go until free agency. He's not going to reach his peak earning potential until he's 28-29. Still young, but not Kershaw young. Harvey has to rebound from Tommy John surgery and show he can still dominate before becoming a serious $200 million candidate.
This is a stretch but it's not impossible. Latos just turned 26 and he is only two years from free agency, plus he's durable (180+ innings in four straight years) and highly effective (3.27 ERA since 2010). If he makes the jump from very good to elite this next two years, maybe wins a Cy Young or two, and hits the open market a few months before turning 28, he'll be in very good position to command $200 million.
Price has all the necessary credentials: he's elite, a workhorse, been through the AL East grinder, and he has a Cy Young to his credit. Price turned 28 in August and he's two years from free agency, meaning he won't hit the open market until he's 30. That's going to hurt his case for $200 million. Price is going to have to wait until free agency or to be traded to land his huge deal because the Rays can't give it to him.
With all due respect to Price, I think Sale is the second best left-handed pitcher in the baseball behind Kershaw. He has been off the charts these last two years (12.8 WAR in 406 1/3 innings) and still he is only 24 years old. The problem: Sale signed a five-year, $32.5 million extension last year, and it includes affordable club options for a sixth and seventh year. If he remains effective these next few years, the options will be exercised and Sale won't hit the open market until after turning 30. That will hurt his earning power.
The reigning AL Cy Young Award winner is one year away from free agency and he will turn 30 in July. Last season was his first truly elite season, so even if he rattles off enough another Cy Young-caliber year, his age and lack of elite track record might keep him from $200 million. Don't get me wrong, Scherzer has been awesome in recent years and he'll easily clear $100 million, but $200 million might be pushing it.
If you ask me who I think has the best chance to usurp Kershaw as the best pitcher in baseball within the next year or two, I'd probably take Strasburg. His career has been handcuffed by innings limits and Tommy John surgery, but he has never not been excellent when on the mound. Strasburg is only 25 and he's three years away from free agency. If he finally breaks free from those team-imposed restrictions and takes off these next three years, $200 million should be very attainable.
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There are several more pitchers out there who could make a serious run at $200 million down the road -- Madison Bumgarner, Yu Darvish and Jordan Zimmermann stand out the most -- but I think those eight guys above stand the best chance of being the next to cross the threshold. If you forced me to pick one, I'd go with Fernandez. Fernandez, Strasburg, Kershaw. In that order.