The third and final player in our salary arbitration preview series is the most compelling one of all. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is arbitration eligible for the final time, but it's not a one-year deal most are concerned with. Every passing day without a multi-year contract extension gets Kershaw one day closer to free agency, increasing the worry among the Dodgers fanbase.
The key to salary arbitration is finding comparable players in both service time and performance, but Kershaw is increasingly becoming more and more unique with each passing season.
Kershaw won his second Cy Young Award in 2013, putting him on roughly the same plane as Tim Lincecum through the arbitration process. Which means Kershaw is about to cash in, even on a one-year deal.
Lincecum isn't a perfect comp, as he was a Super Two after 2009, but heading into 2012 he had the world at his feet. With a pair of Cy Young Awards in tow, Lincecum had these numbers through 2011:
155 starts, 1,028 innings, 69-41, 2.98 ERA, 137 ERA+, 1,127 strikeouts, 398 walks
Lincecum, at four years, 148 days of service time signed a two-year contract that took him through his final two arbitration years, worth $40.5 million. He got $18.5 million in 2012 (including signing bonus), and $22 million in 2013.
Kershaw now has five years, 105 days of service time, with these numbers
182 starts, 1,180 innings, 77-46, 2.60 ERA, 146 ERA+, 1,206 strikeouts, 393 walks
He's at a higher service time level than Lincecum was two years ago, with better bulk numbers and rate stats. Kershaw still holds up even if we look at Lincecum's numbers one year later:
188 starts, 1,214 innings, 79-56, 3.31 ERA, 121 ERA+, 1,317 strikeouts, 469 walks
It seems to me that Lincecum's $18.5 million is the absolute floor for Kershaw, and a case could easily be made that Kershaw deserves more than the $22 million, too. Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors predicted a 2014 salary for Kershaw of $18.25 million, but I think he'll beat that rather easily.
Then again, I tend to overshoot these things and think big. With Kershaw, there is no normal.
The numbers are going to get silly, especially if we start talking about a multi-year deal. But given what Kershaw has accomplished to date and that he'll only be 26 years old in March he really is incomparable.
My guess for Kershaw in 2014 is $21 million.