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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Dodgers send message with Kershaw deal

Inking game's best lefty long-term shows club takes care of its own

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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

The Los Angeles Dodgers are doing what good teams almost always do: they identify their core guys and then they keep them happy. They simply never give those players a reason to leave. Have you noticed that most of the best players never reach free agency anymore?

And so, according to a source, the Dodgers have signed baseball's best pitcher to a seven-year, $215 million contract that is the biggest for any hurler in history. This is a smart deal on an assortment of levels.

It's about winning on the field and at the box office. It's about sending a message that this franchise takes care of its own.

First, though, let's take a refresher course on why Clayton Kershaw is so special. Despite being just 25, he has led the National League in ERA for three straight seasons and in strikeouts two of the past three. He has averaged 225 innings and 230 strikeouts the last four seasons and posted a 2.37 ERA over that time. He has a blazing fastball, pinpoint control and quality secondary pitches.

No other pitcher has Kershaw's combination of experience, talent and results. Others are close. For instance, Adam Wainwright. Others are on the way. For instance, Jose Fernandez. But at this moment, Kershaw is one of the pitchers every other is measured against. There's also an everyman quality about him. He combines confidence and a sense of humility that will make him one of the faces of one of baseball's crown jewel franchises for years to come.

For them to get this deal done is a reminder that this is a new era of Dodgers baseball. From the moment Mark Walter, Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten took over in 2012, they had a very basic goal.

They wanted to be a model franchise. That is, they wanted to win on the field and wanted to do it with compelling players, especially compelling homegrown players that fans could identify as their own.

They spent some money to acquire veteran talent at the start for two reasons. One was to win immediately. Another was to let fans know that the Dodgers were under new management and that corners would not be cut if it impacted winning.

In some ways, the spending obscured Kasten's core beliefs. No one in the game has more experience at franchise building, and he believes everything starts with player development. In the end, it's this part of the operation that could sustain the success that began last summer. But that's another story.

These new owners wanted Dodger Stadium to retain its beauty and sense of history while making it one of the best in baseball in terms of the fan experience. This part of their work has been spectacularly successful, thanks, in large part, to architect Janet Marie Smith, who earlier worked her magic at Camden Yards, Fenway Park and other places.

Kasten will tell you these past 18 months have been the most fun he's had in professional sports. In effect, Walter gave him a blank canvas and asked him to go to work.

Kershaw's contract had been Kasten's No. 1 priority this offseason. He wanted to reward the ace for his good work, and he also wanted to give Kershaw zero thoughts about going on the free-agent market after this season.

Does re-signing Kershaw make the Dodgers more or less likely to sign Masahiro Tanaka, the top free-agent pitcher on the market? If there's any impact on those negotiations, it's that the Dodgers needed to sign their own 25-year-old ace before pursuing a 25-year-old free agent. By signing Tanaka first, it would send the wrong message to Kershaw.

But Tanaka surely knows that every door is open for him. The Dodgers would like to add him to their rotation, but it's not critical. Not signing Kershaw this offseason would have been a distraction hanging over both the club and the pitcher this season.

The Dodgers were having a relatively quiet winter, adding pieces here and there without a major move. Instead, they'd been focused on stability. They signed their manager, Don Mattingly, for three more years, and they now have a long-term deal in place with Kershaw.

While the amount of the contract and how it impacts other pitchers in the game will be a topic of conversation, it's really simpler than that for the Dodgers. It's about winning and doing things right.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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