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Clayton Kershaw remains the engine that drives the Dodgers

Los Angeles Dodgers Photo Day Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

PHOENIX — Clayton Kershaw makes his final full start of spring on Thursday afternoon against the Rangers, likely throwing six innings or 90 pitches as he builds up toward the regular season, a campaign that will start with Kershaw on the mound on April 3 against the Padres at Dodger Stadium.

Every season starts with Kershaw on the mound, something we have probably taken for granted by now. This will be the seventh season in a row Kershaw starts on opening day, tying Don Sutton and Don Drysdale for the most in franchise history, and joining Sutton as the only Dodgers to do it consecutively.

Sandy Koufax only started once on opening day, if you can believe it.

This is in many ways an important season for the Dodgers, who are trying to get over the hump in the playoffs. In each of the four full seasons under the Guggenheim Baseball Partners ownership, the Dodgers have won the division, but have yet to get past the National League Championship Series.

This is year three of the reshaped baseball operations department under Andrew Friedman, tasked with trying to build a long-term pipeline of talent while also keeping the major league club competitive. They have done that, possessing one of the best farm systems in the game while also becoming a fixture in the playoffs, but are still waiting for the franchise’s first World Series in 29 years.

Trying to pick a single face of the Dodgers is a task that is almost doomed from the start. Baseball is full of individual matchups, but it is about team success. It takes more than one great player to win.

Kershaw, for instance, missed 10 weeks last year with a herniated disc in his back, one of a record 28 Dodgers placed on the disabled list during the season, yet they still managed to win 91 games.

The face could be Dave Roberts, entering his second season as manager. A fiery ball of positive energy, Roberts is revered in the clubhouse for both his leadership and communication skills.

It could be one of the trio of top free agents the Dodgers re-signed this winter, with Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner and Rich Hill all returning to fill spots that would have been quite difficult to fill in their absence.

"We talked about doing everything we can to change the culture. It's a little cliche at this point, but it is something that motivates us every day. There was a seismic shift and movement in that direction last year,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said this spring. “Part of that culture is having an environment that is conducive to winning. Where guys are put in positions to succeed, guys are doing everything they can to win games. It feeds off one another, and where you see that really play out is your own free agents want to stay and word gets around the league and guys want to come here and play. That's the ultimate goal.”

The face of the Dodgers just might be Corey Seager, about to turn 23 and coming off one of the best rookie campaigns in club history. Seager is already one of the best players in baseball.

If we’re looking five or so years down the road, it could be Seager, or it could be Julio Urias, just 20 and already with major league success under his belt. If I had to guess, Urias now is roughly where Kershaw was at some point in 2009, or maybe between the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

But as good as Urias is — and it looks like he’s going to be great — expecting him to follow Kershaw’s career path isn’t fair to Urias, and it especially isn’t fair to Kershaw.

Trying to pinpoint exactly where things will stand historically is extremely difficult in the moment. At the start of 2016, we looked at the Dodgers’ leaders for the previous five years, compared to what we might have thought at the start of 2011, then tried to predict how things might go the next five years. Things hardly ever go how you expect.

Let’s look back to 2011, a rather mediocre season in total for the Dodgers at 82-79. Aaron Miles finished just nine plate appearances shy of qualifying for the batting title leaderboard.

But 2011 was a season that included two shining individual stars. Kershaw won the National League Cy Young Award, the first by a Dodgers starting pitcher in 23 years. Matt Kemp had a sublime season, finishing one home run shy of joining the 40-40 club; it was an MVP-caliber campaign, but Kemp finished second to Ryan Braun.

Kemp was only 26 years old, and after the season signed an eight-year, $160 million contract. Kershaw was just 23, still a few years away from his mega deal.

Any reasonable person at the time could have assumed Kemp would be the face, or one of the two faces of the Dodgers over the next five years, at least. But he was slowed by injuries and could no longer handle center field, and was gone just three years later.

Kershaw remains, and has gotten even better basically every season.

He has the lowest career ERA by a starting pitcher since 1920, with a minimum of 1,000 innings (2.37). The next-best starter is Whitey Ford, at 2.75.

Kershaw’s career WHIP will probably soon be under one.

Maybe a Mount Rushmore equivalent would be a better equivalent than trying to choose a single face of the Dodgers. But if forced to pick just one, I have to stick with the best pitcher in baseball.

Kershaw made 21 starts in 2016. That number figures to rise this year. He has averaged 30 starts per year over the last eight seasons. Just getting those nine, or more, extra starts from Kershaw is as big a reason for optimism as any on the 2017 Dodgers.

"There's nobody in baseball that does more in baseball, in the offseason and between starts, to put 200-plus innings on his body and be strong through October than he does," Friedman said of his ace.

Sure, Kershaw can and very likely will opt out of his contract at the end of the 2018 season. But whether that ultimately means Kershaw leaves or stays on a more lucrative deal, he is here now, and how he goes, so go the Dodgers.

"I'm not a big future guy. I just want to pitch. This year, I want to make every start. I'll do whatever I have to do to make that next start,” Kershaw said. “I'll worry about the next years when I need to. If it costs me somewhere down the road, it does. But I'm here to make every start this year. I feel like that's what I'm supposed to do.”

Until proven otherwise, Clayton Kershaw remains the face of the Dodgers, and everyone else can get in line.