The choice beckons every offseason: stay with the Dodgers, go to the hometown Rangers or hang up the cleats on a Hall of Fame career. For a 17th consecutive season, Clayton Kershaw is reportedly set to return to the only team he has known.
While the move is not yet official, it could be by week’s end. The Dodgers currently have a full 40-man roster but will need to make room for both Kershaw and reliever Ryan Brasier. On Thursday, they can begin shifting players to the 60-day injured list, which would clear the necessary space.
It will still be a while before Kershaw can redeem his last appearance on the mound, when the Diamondbacks tagged him for six runs in the first inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series. One month after that start, Kershaw revealed that he underwent capsule surgery on his left shoulder and won’t be available until sometime this summer at the earliest.
After a year in which he carried a beleaguered Dodgers rotation — leading his team in starts, innings pitched and strikeouts despite missing a month and a half due to his shoulder issue — the soon-to-be 36-year-old will no longer have to shoulder so much of the load in 2024.
The Dodgers’ atypical breadth of starting pitching last year — made more glaring by season-ending injuries to Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin and Julio Urías getting placed on leave — came back to bite them in October, as starters Kershaw, rookie Bobby Miller and Lance Lynn combined to allow 13 earned runs in just 4.2 innings amid a Diamondbacks sweep. It also helped ignite a spending spree that should allow Kershaw to ease his way back as he rehabs the first surgery of his storied career.
The Dodgers transformed themselves into World Series favorites this winter, not only acquiring Shohei Ohtani but also overhauling their rotation by making Yoshinobu Yamamoto the highest-paid pitcher in the sport, trading for Tyler Glasnow and adding James Paxton. They’re expected to get Walker Buehler back from Tommy John surgery early in the year. In Miller, Emmet Sheehan, Gavin Stone and Michael Grove, they should have plenty of options to fill out the rotation until Kershaw is ready to return. If all goes to plan, they should also have enough options come October that one pitcher, whose previous postseason foibles have been well-documented, won’t determine their fate.
He has made clear he does not intend on pitching unless he feels he can still be an additive to a team. That Kershaw still managed to go 13-5 with a 2.46 ERA last year, despite the shoulder bothering him throughout the season’s second half, is a testament to both his determination and ability.
After surrendering just one hit in six scoreless innings on June 27 in Colorado, Kershaw’s sore shoulder forced him out of action for the next month and a half. After returning on Aug. 10, he didn’t throw more than five innings or 84 pitches in any of his final eight starts of the season. Despite his shoulder clearly wreaking havoc on his velocity and command, he still posted a 2.23 ERA over that stretch.
At the time, he mostly downplayed the discomfort he was feeling.
“I think that Clayton is the first to tell you he doesn’t like to use anything as an excuse or talk about anything, but I know what’s going on,” manager Dave Roberts said then. “I just have so much respect for him. People can’t do what he can do.”
Kershaw added: “At the end of the day, you just have to execute pitches. It’s as simple as that.”
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During the regular season, he was able to do that. In October, he couldn’t work around his diminished stuff and didn’t escape the first inning against Arizona, in what was the worst start of his career. That clunker won’t, however, be his final act in a Dodgers uniform.
The Dodgers wanted him to take as much time as he needed this winter with his wife, Ellen, to see how he felt. Despite a littered injury history, this was the first time he entered an offseason needing to recover from surgery.
“It’s about giving him and Ellen space and time to figure out what makes the most sense for their family,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said in December. “Whenever that is, whether it’s tonight, a month from now, two months from now, that they have that clarity, we’ll figure that out. As far as surgery and coming back from it, I would bet on him every day with confidence, him coming back and being a really, really good pitcher who helps us win a lot of baseball games when he does.”
Every year, it’s a decision Kershaw will have to make. He has vowed to only take one-year deals, either with the Dodgers or Rangers, for however long his career lasts. In a year in which the Hall of Fame just recognized Todd Helton for his 17 years with the Rockies, Kershaw is now set to embark on his 17th season in Los Angeles.
Unlike most of those years, he can play a supporting role.
The Dodgers’ rotation already looks set to drastically improve on the 4.57 ERA it posted last year, which was its worst mark since the team moved to Los Angeles. But the addition of Kershaw, who enters the 2024 season just 56 strikeouts short of 3,000, could eventually return this stable of starting pitchers to its usual dominance.
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and MLB as a whole for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
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