Clayton Kershaw, Not Masahiro Tanaka, Should Be Dodgers’ Top Priority

Clayton Kershaw, Masahiro TanakaThe Los Angeles Dodgers should think long and hard before going “all-out” on Masahiro Tanaka.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported last week that the Dodgers made clear they won’t be outbid for Tanaka, who is free to sign with any Major League Baseball team. But while adding Tanaka would make the Dodgers’ rotation even more daunting, Los Angeles’ top priority should be locking up Clayton Kershaw, who is slated to hit free agency next offseason.

Perhaps the Dodgers, who seemingly have an endless supply of dough, can sign Tanaka this offseason and still sign Kershaw to a long-term contract extension at some point over the next 10 months. Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, Brian Wilson and Dan Haren will come off the books after the 2014 season, so L.A. should have some extra cake to work with. Plus, there isn’t much to suggest that Kershaw wants to test the open market, although he’d be a fool not to at this point.

But given the business of baseball, it’s reasonable to think that by overexerting themselves for Tanaka, the Dodgers would, at the very least, lessen their chances of re-signing their franchise lefty — even if by a small margin. It’s an unnecessary gamble.

Tanaka, who was an ace in Japan, has plenty of potential and is still just 25 years old. You could make the case that signing the Japanese right-hander would be a preemptive strike to potentially losing Kershaw. But Kershaw, who will turn 26 in March, is hands-down the best pitcher in baseball. Why run the risk of negatively impacting future negotiations for an unknown commodity? It’s not as if the Dodgers’ current rotation — which includes Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Haren and Beckett — isn’t already formidable.

Kershaw is coming off his second Cy Young award, and his next contract likely will raise the bar for elite starting pitchers. It already has been reported that the Dodgers were prepared to offer the southpaw a deal in the $300 million range. That’s a steep bill to foot — even for the richest folks — and it would be an especially large investment one year after doling out another nine-figure contract — like Tanaka is expected to land.

According to The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, one National League executive predicted that one team will make an offer to Tanaka that blows everyone away. If that team happens to be the Dodgers, it essentially would be a self-inflicted wound, as Kershaw’s price tag likely will rise as Tanaka’s price tag does the same.

The whole situation is about more than just dollars and cents, though. What message would the Dodgers send by giving the world to Tanaka while Kershaw sits ideally, waiting for his big payday?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe Kershaw really does love playing in Los Angeles so much that signing Tanaka to a $100 million contract would have a minimal impact on the southpaw’s willingness to re-up with the Dodgers for the foreseeable future. And maybe the Dodgers’ stack of cash is fat enough to get the best of both worlds.

But maybe — just maybe — another high-priced expenditure that doesn’t involve Kershaw ultimately will convince the three-time All-Star to test free agency rather than sign with the club that drafted him seventh overall in 2006 before hitting the open market. Kershaw already has the leverage. He’ll have even more if the Dodgers go out and sign Tanaka for a boatload of money.

Let’s be clear. Tanaka wearing Dodger Blue is a scary thought, especially for NL West teams. But what’s scarier — at least from a Dodgers perspective — is the idea of watching the best pitcher in baseball walk away next winter because of an unnecessary investment this offseason.

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here.

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