In his 16th season, Clayton Kershaw is well into the stage of his illustrious career that he’s on a year-to-year basis regarding his playing future. Sometimes it’s even week to week, as we’ve seen with his current left shoulder soreness that will sideline Kershaw until at least the beginning of August.
The usual question surrounding Kershaw is whether he’ll return to the Dodgers or go home to Texas to pitch for the Rangers. But a looming third option is also under consideration — that he might just go home and not pitch at all.
Retirement is at least on the table, Kershaw told Bob Nightengale of USA Today:
“I have four kids, a wife, I have too many factors when it comes to baseball,” Kershaw says. “I don’t want to diminish how much I like playing here, but I’m at a point where I have to take everything in consideration. I’m weighing a lot of factors. It might take a few months after the season to make a decision.
“Last year was easy for me to come back. This year, I honestly have no idea.”
It’s perfectly understandable that Kershaw longs for more time with his wife Ellen and four kids, especially as they reach school age. It’s easy to spend time with the kids during the summer, as Kershaw did before Saturday’s game against the Mets at Citi Field. But it’s much harder to be apart when they are in school during the baseball season.
The obvious solution to the latter for Kershaw would be to pitch for the Rangers, with Globe Life Field about 15-20 minutes from his home.
When Kershaw signed his one-year, $20-million contract in December to return to the Dodgers in 2023, Kershaw talked about the decision process and said he was at peace going year to year.
“It’s no secret. I think every year there’s only two teams that I would ever play for going forward,” Kershaw said in December. “There’s not a lot of leverage in that, obviously.”
Kershaw has connections with the Rangers, including former teammate Corey Seager at shortstop. General manager Chris Young was an offseason throwing partner with Kershaw in recent years, and those two both went to Highland Park High School, though Young is nine years older.
The idea of Kershaw joining the Rangers is much more plausible now than last season, with Texas in first place in the American League West after six straight losing seasons. Kershaw addressed this with Nightengale as well:
“I know CY [Chris Young] wants to win, and will do what it takes,’’ Kershaw said. “I know Boch a little bit. I know a lot of guys over there.
“But I also love being a Dodger.”
The Dodgers also need Kershaw. In addition to the sentimental benefit of having a franchise icon play for the team for his entire career, Kershaw at 35 is also the Dodgers best pitcher.
He has a 2.55 ERA and 3.48 xERA in 16 starts, with 105 strikeouts in 95⅓ innings, and made the All-Star team for the 10th time, tied for the most in Dodgers history. Kershaw leads the National League in ERA, ERA+ (173), and WHIP (1.049), and is in the top 10 in the league in xERA, strikeout rate (27.7 percent), strikeout-minus-walk rate (21.4 percent), and wins (10). Though in a few days, Kershaw won’t have enough innings to qualify for leaderboards, which has been the case in each of the previous three seasons as well.
Kershaw allowed only four runs in five starts in June, posting a 1.09 ERA for the month. But he won’t pitch in July, which throws a wrench into the situation both for this year and beyond.
He wanted to avoid the injured list and make one more start before the All-Star break, but the Dodgers disagreed. The planned minimal reset turned into a longer stint on the shelf. Kershaw on Friday in New York talked with reporters about getting shut down until August.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” Kershaw said. “I feel completely fine. The shoulder feels good. I’ve just been told it has to rest. It’s a weird deal. I’ve never had anything like it, to the point where, like I’m gonna go play catch today and throw it as hard as I can, and they say it needs to rest. It’s just weird, honestly. I don’t know what to make of it. But I’m just gonna have to listen to them.”
“When the doctor tells you something — I’m really good at arguing — but I can’t argue with that,” he said, noting the advice came from renowned team physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache. “He’s been around a long time and seen a lot of stuff. So obviously I trust his opinion. If there was ever a guy to go see, it would be him. That doesn’t mean I believe it, but I do trust him.”
There’s a secretive nature to this entire ordeal, with little details on the injury revealed beyond left shoulder inflammation. When the Dodgers placed Kershaw on the IL on July 3, the injury was described only as “left shoulder soreness.”
Kershaw himself said, per the LA Times piece, that he knows when he is coming back. Dave Roberts on Friday was vague, providing only “the beginning of August” as a target for Kershaw’s return.
It’s definitely frustrating for Kershaw, who has had at least one injured-list stint for eight consecutive seasons and last topped 22 starts or 126⅓ innings in 2019. His injury history was one reason Kershaw has said he prefers to take things year by year.
“I still love to play, but I have not been able to stay healthy for a full year,” Kershaw says, “and that is the worst for me. You just feel like you’re not part of it. That’s hard for me too.
“If I come back [in 2024], I want to be good. You can’t come back halfway, you got to be all of the way in. You can’t just show up and say, “All right guys, here I am.’ You got to earn your spot, especially the kind of money you’re going to get paid.”
In each of the last two offseasons, the Dodgers have not extended a qualifying offer to Kershaw, which would net a compensatory draft pick should he sign elsewhere. It was a courtesy to Kershaw, with the team not wanting to rush his decision.
Last year the Dodgers and Kershaw agreed to terms on a new contract only five days into free agency. It sounds like this offseason will take longer for him to decide what’s next. Kershaw has certainly earned that.