After the Los Angeles Dodgers recently signed both Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda to lucrative contracts, lefty ace Clayton Kershaw can’t help but sit scratching his head with concern.

In 2009, at only 21 years of age, Kershaw’s salary was $404,000—just $4,000 over the league minimum.

And after proving to the team that he is indeed one of the brightest future stars of the Dodgers franchise, Los Angeles awarded him a $40,000 raise in 2010.

That’s right, while Lilly and Kuroda each earned over $10 million last year, Kershaw was shining among the best in the business while collecting his meager $440,000 salary.

Even George Sherrill ($4.5 million) and Vicente Padilla ($5.025 million) both banked at least 10 times more cash than Kershaw last season.

It is, however, fair to say that Kershaw’s situation isn’t completely out of the norm; and after only two full years of MLB service, his salary fits well within the guidelines set by Major League Baseball.

General Manager Ned Colletti and team owner Frank McCourt probably find it difficult to forget that they paid Kershaw a $2.3 million signing bonus back in 2006, which at the time was the highest in Dodgers history.

With the signing bonus still in mind, perhaps Colletti and McCourt believed that Kershaw’s 2010 salary was somewhat justified; yet when first-round draft choice Zach Lee was awarded a $5.25 million signing bonus this year, Kershaw took a backseat once again.

Kershaw is pre-arbitration eligible this winter, which basically means he will get paid whatever the Dodgers want to pay him. The only stipulations are that he makes at least the league minimum, which is $400,000, and the salary must be at least 80 percent of last year’s compensation.

While pre-arbitration is still considered a two-sided negotiation, and the player involved has the option to refuse a deal, the club still has the choice to pay whatever salary it wishes during this stage of the player’s career.

After the 2011 season, Kershaw will become arbitration eligible, which means each side will submit a prospective salary, and if an agreement can’t be reached, both the team and the player will take part in a hearing in front of a panel of three arbitrators.

Still, with all of those guidelines in mind, there’s nothing that prevents Ned Colletti from offering Kershaw something like a three-year, $20 million contract today. And he would certainly deserve every dime of it.

Whether or not Clayton Kershaw is actually ace material isn’t the question at hand, but what is important to remember is that he is far and away the most talented pitcher in the starting rotation.

Last year, Kershaw led all Dodgers starters with 13 wins, 212 strikeouts, over 204 innings pitched and a stellar 2.91 ERA. On September 14 against the San Francisco Giants, he threw the first shutout of his young career, and perhaps his most impressive win of the season occurred on May 9, when he outdueled Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies by throwing eight innings of two-hit shutout ball while earning the win.

Immediately after the Lilly and Kuroda signings, some fans across Dodgertown were almost bitter with the amount of money offered in the deals, being that Los Angeles needs to upgrade in quite a few areas in order to make a push for the playoffs in 2011. And the problem is that while having obvious limits, the overall payroll can be distorted and constrained very quickly, putting several of the younger players in a position to earn less than their actual value.

The underlying point is after the 2011 campaign, more than a handful of the Los Angeles players will be eligible for free agency; and after 2013, Kershaw himself may be eligible, depending what type of contract he is offered in the future.

The players remember times like these—and more often than not, the way a player is rewarded determines whether they walk or stay come free agency time.

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