Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier speaks during a news conference Tuesday… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
Andre Ethier had leverage and he knew it.
The Dodgers had new owners who were under pressure to sign him. He was one of the Dodgers' most popular players and one of only two dependable hitters in an uneven lineup. He was less than five months away from entering a thin free agent market.
Ethier could have sparked a bidding war among teams reluctant to pursue Josh Hamilton, a recovering drug addict who could be a free agent this winter. Ethier could have asked the Dodgers for more money.
Instead, he signed a five-year, $85-million contract extension with the Dodgers that was officially announced at a Tuesday news conference at Dodger Stadium.
"I'm a Dodger," Ethier said. "This is the only place I can see myself."
The contract could be for as long as six years and be worth as much as $100 million if Ethier meets certain plate-appearance benchmarks to guarantee a club option for 2018. In that case, Ethier would be 36 when the contract expires.
But with teams increasingly signing players to long-term contracts before they are eligible for free agency, All-Star-caliber outfielders who are out of contract frequently land jaw-dropping paydays. Over the last two off-seasons, Carl Crawford signed with the Boston Red Sox for seven years and $142 million, Jayson Werth with the Washington Nationals for seven years and $126 million and Matt Holliday with the St. Louis Cardinals for seven years and $120 million.
"That's why we entered into it," General Manager Ned Colletti said.
The decision to enter a long-term agreement with Ethier was more than a baseball decision. Team President Stan Kasten acknowledged Ethier's popularity among fans was a consideration, saying, "He covered all the bases."
Ethier was aware of his position. But he had no interest in taking part in extended negotiations.
"I knew at the end of the day this is where I wanted to be," Ethier said.
He and his wife, Maggie, had grown fond of Los Angeles.
"This is one of the best places in baseball to be and play, no matter what's going on," Ethier said. "Even in the bad times, you can't complain about living in this city."
Promises from the new ownership group to continue to improve the club "reaffirmed my decision even more," he said.
"What's the point of holding out and dragging it out and maybe becoming bitter toward each other?" he asked.
As a player who long felt unsure of his place in the game, Ethier wanted a resolution. There was a time, only a few years ago, when he refused to publicly admit he was a good player. Even when he established himself as a star, his uncertain future weighed on him. Last spring, he wondered aloud whether 2011 would be his final season with the Dodgers.
"It's always something I've struggled with, I'm not going to lie," he said. "It's been a draining, tough process for me to get this point. I admit I've made a lot of mistakes. There are a lot of things I would have done differently along the way. I guess you only learn as time goes on."
Ethier's agent, Nez Balelo, didn't push him toward free agency.
"You have to listen to the client," Balelo said. "It's his job, it's his future. We weighed out all the options. After weighing all the options, he still made the decision this was the right place to be."
Balelo wouldn't speculate how much more money Ethier could have made on the open market.
"He's comfortable here," Balelo said. "He's comfortable in the community, he's comfortable with his teammates. You heard him say this is the best chemistry he's had in the clubhouse in the last seven years. You don't just walk away from that because you're seeking a better contract that you don't know is out there. Being comfortable and being happy is a huge part of life."
Formal negotiations lasted only a few weeks. The main points of the contract were agreed upon when the Dodgers were in Seattle last weekend.
Ethier was ecstatic.
"I can't believe I would get this unbelievable privilege," he said. "I mean privilege because you can say you earned it, you put in the hard work, you made the sacrifices, but there are a lot of people who put in the hard work and sacrifice."
For the Dodgers, this assured them of retaining their two middle-of-the-lineup hitters for several seasons.
Matt Kemp signed an eight-year, $160-million deal and is under contract through the 2019 season.
"You sign Matt last winter and you sign Andre long-term, it says you want to get better as an organization, you're looking to move forward and that you think these two guys are our cornerstones," Manager Don Mattingly said. "To me, it makes a commitment to the fans."