Baseball owners got a good thing going on.
Sporting a pretty impeccable record after three seasons, Clayton Kershaw was eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter. Coming off a season that saw him take the NL Cy Young Award and the pitcher’s triple crown, he had a chance to set a new salary record for pitchers with his service time.
And yet he passed. Kershaw agreed to a two-year, $19 million contract on Tuesday. He didn’t even insist on receiving as much as Tim Lincecum got from the Giants two years ago. As a super-two player, Lincecum received $23 million for two years from the Giants after 2009.
I get why Kershaw would want to play it safe and take the payday. That first $20 million certainly sets one up for life in a way a $6.5 million salary for 2012 (that’s what the Dodgers offered him in arbitration) wouldn’t have.
Still, young players are giving up too much earnings potential in multiyear deals lately. And that everyone is doing it makes arbitration that much more of a risk for each new class of players.
That’s because arbitration is all about comparables. The players and teams both look at players with similiar performance and service time in judging their requests and offers. It’s weighed heavily in the event that the case eventually goes before an arbitrator.
But these days so many of the comparables are already locked up to long-term deals paying them less than what they could be earning. Who does Kershaw compare to? Cole Hamels? As part of a three-year deal, he made $4.35 million in what would have been his first year of arbitration. Jon Lester? $3.75 million in the second year of a five-year deal. Lincecum is the closest match. He made $8 million as a super-two player and $13 million with three-plus years of service time last year.
Kershaw asked for $10 million in arbitration this winter, a price that seemed pretty reasonable given his performance. But rather than hold out for it, he’ll get a $500,000 signing bonus, $7.5 million this year and $11 million next year.
And so the cycle will continue. That so few of the game’s great young players have been willing to test arbitration holds down the salaries of the group as a whole. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for baseball. In fact, it’s probably a good thing; where would the Rays be right now if they had to pay Evan Longoria, James Shields and Ben Zobrist arbitration salaries? Still, I’d rather see the Kershaws of the game claim a bigger piece of the pie.