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Salary Arbitration Eligible Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw will make a lot of money in 2012.
Clayton Kershaw will make a lot of money in 2012.

Classify this one as a good problem to have: Clayton Kershaw is too good for salary arbitration.

The salary arbitration process was built to create a system of compensation for players not yet eligible for free agency, a system built around finding comparable players, in performance and service time. The system wasn't built for truly unique players, the outliers, the incomparable ones. Players like Clayton Kershaw.

There is one truly comparable player to Kershaw, a fellow special circumstance. But we'll get to him in a second.

Kershaw has three years, 105 days of service time, and is eligible for salary arbitration the first time in his career. It's hard to imagine a better launch season than the one from Kershaw in 2011: He was 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts, winning the pitching triple crown and the National League Cy Young Award, and added a Gold Glove for good measure. One way or another, Kershaw is going to make some serious coin in 2012. They only question is, how much?

There is a pretty solid set of five pitchers that I think are roughly comparable to Kershaw. Here are their career numbers heading into their first year of arbitration eligibility.

Pitcher Thru Year Svc Time IP W-L BB K ERA ERA+ WHIP bWAR fWAR Salary
Clayton Kershaw 2011 3.105 716 47-28 278 748 2.88 135 1.173 16.9 17.1 ???
Jered Weaver 2009 3.127 672 51-27 198 546 3.73 120 1.249 14.6 12.9 $4,265
Cole Hamels 2008 2.143 543 38-23 144 518 3.43 132 1.136 10.4 10.8 $4,350
Justin Verlander 2008 3.002 600 46-34 219 477 4.11 111 1.328 8.9 10.7 $3,675
Felix Hernandez 2008 3.060 666 39-36 216 593 3.80 114 1.319 12.4 14.2 $3,800
Dontrelle Willis 2005 2.143 594 46-27 174 451 3.27 125 1.254 11.4 12.3 $4,350

King Felix and Verlander were pitchers on similar paths at this point in their careers, accomplished with the promise of something more ahead. Each would win 19 games the very next year - Hernandez finished second in AL Cy Young balloting, with Verlander third - and each would cash in with five-year contracts worth $78 million and $80 million, respectively, in the following offseason. Hernandez would win the Cy Young Award in 2010, Verlander would win the award in 2011.

Kershaw already has a Cy Young Award.

Weaver stepped into the Angels rotation and started winning from day one, compiling impressive numbers at this point in his career. Cole Hamels did the same, and added the title of postseason hero to his resume by pitching the Phillies to a World Series win in 2008. As a Super Two, Hamels tied the record for highest salary by a first-time arbitration-eligible pitcher, set by Willis three years earlier. Willis was a whirlwind his first few years, and won 22 games in his launch year in 2005, finishing second in the Cy Young voting.

Kershaw won a Cy Young Award, and won 21 games in his launch year, and has career numbers that are better than anyone on this list. Kershaw is going to get paid much more than these five pitchers, but again the question is, how much?

That brings us to the benchmark for Kershaw: Tim Lincecum.

Lincecum, a college pitcher from the University of Washington, was drafted in 2006, the same year as Kershaw, getting picked four picks later by the Giants. Within a year, he was in the San Francisco rotation to stay. In Lincecum's first full season, in 2008, he won the Cy Young Award, and followed that up with another Cy Young Award one year later. Two full seasons produced two Cy Young Awards, giving Lincecum the ultimate negotiating hammer come arbitration time.

Pitcher Thru Year Svc Time IP W-L BB K ERA ERA+ WHIP bWAR fWAR Salary
Clayton Kershaw 2011 3.105 716 47-28 278 748 2.88 135 1.173 16.9 17.1 ???
Tim Lincecum
2009 2.148 599 40-17 217 676 2.90 151 1.151 15.2 18.7 $9,000

Lincecum signed a two-year deal after 2009 worth $23 million, that paid him $8 million in 2010 and $13 million in 2011, with a $2 million signing bonus. For purposes of finding Lincecum's 2010 salary, I have spread his signing bonus across both years of his contract. But no matter how you slice it, Lincecum absolutely obliterated the previous record of $4.35 million for a pitcher in his first year of arbitration eligibility.

That brings us to Kershaw, who has bulk numbers that surpass those of Lincecum in many cases, and one could make a completely reasonable argument that Kershaw has accomplished more than Lincecum and could ask for the moon, and get it.

And they might be right. But I think it will come down to special accomplishments.

Ryan Howard was a Super Two following the 2007 season, meaning he was in the top 17% of players in service time among those with at least two but not quite three years of major league service. That got him an extra-year of arbitration eligibility. He won Rookie of the Year in 2005 despite playing a near-McCoveyan 88 games, then captured the NL MVP award in his first full season, smashing 58 home runs and driving in 149 RBI in 2006. Howard followed up his MVP campaign with another eye-popping season of 47 home runs and 136 RBI in 2007, and went into arbitration looking to get paid.

The Phillies offered a salary of $7 million, which would have been a record for a player of Howard's service time. Howard's camp countered with a request for $10 million. And won. The special accomplishment of Howard's MVP award certainly contributed to his arbitration victory, but there was a thought at the time that Howard's win would artificially skew arbitration salaries upward.

But it hasn't happened. Nobody with anywhere close to Howard's service time has come away with a salary anywhere close to Howard's $10 million. What it did do was skew Howard's salaries higher through his arbitration years, and led to a massive five-year, $125 million extension that is only beginning this year. Howard remains the outlier.

Like Lincecum.

I think Kershaw should and will get paid much more than those first five comparable pitchers I listed above. In fact, I think he will blow them away. But I do think Lincecum leads in the special accomplishment category, that his two Cy Young Awards give him a trump card over Kershaw's one award.

I have thought Kershaw would max out at $8 million in 2012, but let's give him a bonus for his bulk numbers in comparison to Lincecum. I'll guess Kershaw's 2012 salary as $8.5 million, but all it takes is a solid arbitration argument by Kershaw's team and a three-person panel willing to be swayed and he could almost make a case for whatever he wants.

What's your guess for Kershaw's salary in 2012?

Thanks as always to Cot's Contracts, Baseball-Reference, and FanGraphs.