Congratulations to Clayton Kershaw for being the almost-unanimous winner of the 2013 National League Cy Young Award. Kershaw’s incredible performances over the past three seasons speak for themselves, but I’ll speak about them anyway, because that is what I do. He has made 33 starts in each of his past three campaigns, during which he has maintained a 2.22 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP in almost 700 innings while striking out 9.2 per nine. Of course, this was his second Cy Young Award in those three years. He finished in second place behind R.A. Dickey in 2012. Kershaw’s 20.6 Wins Above Replacement is the highest of any N.L. pitcher from 2011-2013 and is second in the majors to Justin Verlander (20.8) over that stretch. Not only is he great, he is consistently great, and at age 25, Kershaw is poised to break many Dodgers pitching records and go down as the greatest pitcher in the Dodgers’ long history of great pitchers. You would almost need to pinch yourself at the prospect, right?
Not so fast, Kershaw Nation! Gear up for an arbitration case because the Dodgers have already fired a familiar-looking shot across the bow which, if played out the same way it did 15 years ago, will lead to Kershaw setting all kinds of records for another team.
Earlier this year, the Dodgers and their star pitcher exchanged ideas for term and compensation in an effort to avoid arbitration (always a messy process) and potentially agree on a long-term deal to essentially have Kershaw in a Dodgers uniform for the prime years of his career. After exchanging those ideas, something happened that is eerily similar to what happened in 1998. Somehow, it became public that the Dodgers and Kershaw were negotiating a long-term contract, FoxSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal reporting that the sides had discussed possible deals of 10 years, $250 million and 12 years, $300 million. Upon this information going public, Kershaw voiced his immediate displeasure, telling Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register on June 18, “I think the reason we’ve been able to continue discussions this long is that it hasn’t been talked about (publicly). Now that it’s being talked about, it’s a distraction because I’m being asked about it.” Asked if he was upset that some details of those discussions had gone public, Kershaw said. “Yeah. … I don’t love the fact that I have to talk about it.”
It isn’t at all clear why details like these would be leaked out. It isn’t even entirely clear that the leak came from the Dodgers, but it wouldn’t be unheard of, or even unprecedented, for that to be the case. One reason a club might leak something like that would be to begin painting a public picture of a player as something other than a team guy. This can only affect negotiations in a bad way. As recently as two nights ago, while doing media for his well-deserved Cy Young Award, Kershaw was dodging questions about the stalled negotiations with the Dodgers — although he eventually did admit during a media conference call that, “no talks have happened yet this offseason.”
I can’t help harkening back 15 years, to when the Dodgers had a catcher named Mike Piazza putting up unbelievable offensive numbers as he entered his walk year. Piazza and the Dodgers weren’t far apart on either term or dollars per season, but as the Dodgers dragged their feet during the offseason, Piazza set a self-imposed deadline of Feb. 18 to sign a deal with the Fox-owned team. The date came and went, and Piazza, who simply didn’t want to negotiate while he prepared for the season, broke off contract talks. Not only could the sides not compromise, but it got personal. The man running the Dodgers for Fox at the time, Chase Carey, embarked on a media blitz during spring training that by the home opener had mass numbers of Dodgers fans booing Piazza for acting “entitled” and for being “greedy.” Carey publicized Piazza’s contract demands, which in fact were just one year and $1 million per year more than the Dodgers’ offer, but in wanting a total of $98 million, he was cast as the selfish player fans can’t get behind despite a career average of .331, on-base percentage of .394 and OPS of .966; the 1993 N.L. Rookie of the Year; five All-Star appearances, including being named MVP of the 1996 game; five Silver Slugger awards; and two runner-up finishes in N.L. MVP balloting in seven seasons with the Blue Crew. The Dodgers traded Piazza a little more than a month into the ’98 season. He ended up making seven more All-Star appearances and winning five more Silver Slugger awards. Piazza hit more home runs than any catcher in MLB history (396) and is one of 10 players in history to hit 400 home runs while batting .300 lifetime and never striking out more than 100 times in a season, and most of it went down for other teams.
With Kershaw, I recognize we’re not talking about chump change. and there is certainly a high risk involved with signing any pitcher to a deal for more than five years. But if the Dodgers go down this road again with another homegrown product with established credentials for greatness, if they choose to negotiate in a very public way, they will again be acting penny-wise and pound-foolish. They could set the franchise, whose success is anchored to its pitching staff, back many, many years.
Piazza could have been a Dodger for life if not for Chase Carey’s antics. He could have had a Hall-of-Fame career in Los Angeles. But it didn’t happen, all because of what amounted to pennies on the dollar where Fox was concerned. Despite his relationship with Tom Lasorda, Piazza makes it clear in his recently released book Long Shot that he hates every other aspect of this organization (including Vin Scully apparently) and certainly the boo-happy fans who also took things way too personally.
The Dodgers would do well to negotiate in private with Kershaw, because in the end, no one’s reputation is aided when things become personal. Kershaw is going to get his money, and there is an owner with deep pockets just down the street whose team is desperate for pitching and who likely would jump at the chance to steal this kind of talent from the Dodgers. Guggenheim has done a lot in a short period of time to pull Dodgers fans out of the McCourt doldrums, but the new ownership group can ill-afford to mess this up.
– Phil Stone