With the additions of Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto on deals lasting 10 and 12 years, respectively, the Dodgers are entering a new era when it comes to their headlining superstars — not to take anything away from Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, both of whom remain at or near the top of their respective games. On Monday, we learned that the next stage of Dodger baseball will also include another familiar superstar: The New York Post’s Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman reported that free agent Clayton Kershaw will return to the only team for which he’s ever pitched.
The exact terms of the deal — which is pending a physical on Thursday — have yet to emerge at this writing, but USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reported that the deal is a “one-year, incentive-laden contract,” while The Athletic’s Andy McCullough added that the contract includes a player option for 2025. If exercised, that would allow Kershaw to join Ohtani — who won’t pitch in 2024 after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his UCL this past September — in the Dodgers’ rotation.
Player options tend to carry advantages when it comes to Competitive Balance Tax accounting, a significant concern for the Dodgers, who rank second in payroll (both actual and CBT-based) only to the Mets and are nearly $12 million over the fourth-tier tax threshold of $297 million even before adding Kershaw’s salary. For example, Justin Turner’s two-year, $21.7 million deal with the Red Sox last year called for a base salary of $8.3 million for 2023, then a $13.4 million option and $6.7 million buyout. By opting out, Turner made $15 million on a deal whose average annual value was just $10.85 million.
Kershaw made $20 million last year but figures to be guaranteed less money for 2024, though bonuses for starts and/or innings could make up some of the difference. The timing of the move is more significant than the dollar amount, because neither the pitcher nor the Dodgers know exactly when the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer will throw his next competitive pitch. On November 3, he underwent surgery to repair the glenohumeral ligaments and capsule of his left shoulder, a procedure that left him “hopeful to return to play at some point next summer” (as he wrote via Instagram) but hardly assured of such a return given the significance of the procedure. Pulling from what I wrote in relation to the surgery at the time:
The three glenohumeral ligaments (superior, middle, and inferior) connect the scapula to the humerus. Effectively, they stabilize the ball of the upper arm bone within the socket of the shoulder blade. The capsule surrounds the joint and is reinforced by the rotator cuff muscles.
…As best we can tell from the minimal details offered, the surgery doesn’t seem to be directly related to his rotator cuff or labrum; such surgeries might put him out of action for an entire season. Capsule surgery is no small matter, however, so it’s hardly out of the question that he could be sidelined for a full season as well, if there are setbacks in his rehab. The good news is that doesn’t seem to be the baseline assumption.
Given that, it’s notable that because the Dodgers open their season by playing the Padres in Seoul, South Korea on March 20 and 21, they’re allowed to put players on the 60-day injured list as of Thursday, February 8. A player on the 60-day IL doesn’t count against the 40-man roster limit, meaning that no corresponding move will have to be made to clear space for Kershaw. Had his return become official before that, it would have meant one less player the team could protect. As it is, the team likely won’t make Ryan Brasier’s two-year deal official until Thursday, either, once they move Tommy John surgery recipients Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May to the 60-day IL.
This is the third straight offseason in which Kershaw has re-signed with the Dodgers as a free agent, and as with the last two, the Dallas native weighed the possibility of pitching closer to home by signing with the Rangers. This time around, they’re defending world champions, but they’re also already spending big money on three other pitchers rehabbing from major surgeries, namely last year’s marquee free agent Jacob deGrom, who underwent his second Tommy John procedure last June and is eying August for his return; midseason acquisition Max Scherzer, who underwent surgery for a herniated disc in mid-December and is targeting a midsummer return; and December free agent addition Tyler Mahle, who underwent Tommy John surgery last May and should return sometime this summer. For them, adding a rehabbing Kershaw made less sense than adding a healthier version would have in years past, particularly with the team affected by the Diamond Sports Group’s bankruptcy and expected to have their local television revenue reduced by as much as 15% for 2024.
Whether he pitches beyond 2024 or not, Kershaw’s return to the fold gives him the chance to craft a more dignified exit than he would have if he’d left the Dodgers this winter. In Game 1 of last year’s Division Series, he couldn’t get any of his pitches to work reliably, retired just one of the eight Diamondbacks he faced while being charged with six runs, and was unable to articulate his plans for the future after the Dodgers were swept, telling reporters, “I don’t know how to answer that right now.”
As in the past, the Dodgers respected Kershaw’s desire to take the time to weigh his options, remaining in touch with the team as he went through surgery and plotted out his next steps. “His rehab is coming along really well,” said manager Dave Roberts at the the team’s fan fest on Saturday. “I think his thought process right now is dominate the rehab process and get something done when it makes sense.”
When he was available in 2023, Kershaw generally pitched pretty well, posting a 2.46 ERA in 131.2 innings and making his 10th NL All-Star team. Left shoulder soreness sent him to the IL before he could pitch in the All-Star Game, however, and after missing six weeks, he threw just 36.1 innings in eight post-injury starts, with the quality of his stuff (as measured by both the Stuff+ and PitchingBot models) and his results both noticeably down. Picking up a table I made in November:
Clayton Kershaw via Stuff+ and PitchingBot
Stuff+ scores are normalized to an average of 100, PitchingBot scores are normalized to a 20–80 scouting scale.
Scratch the surface beneath his tidy ERA — which was just a hair below his career mark of 2.48, and actually decreased after his absence — and you’ll find some unsettling indicators. Kershaw’s 4.03 FIP was his highest mark since his 2008 rookie season, his 3.82 xERA his highest of the Statcast era, his 7.6% walk rate his highest since 2010, his 18.5% strikeout-to-walk differential his lowest since ’12, and so on. Considering his post-injury splits (4.61 xERA, 5.40 FIP, plus the pitch quality metrics above), it isn’t so surprising he got knocked around in the postseason; indeed, it’s fair to wonder whether he should have been out there at all given his condition.
When he does return to action, Kershaw will join a rotation that’s been radically reshaped since the middle of last May. The Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team stuck together more closely than the quintet that started for the Dodgers from May 13–17:
A Starting Five Scattered to the Four Winds Since Mid-May
|Placed on administrative leave as part of league domestic violence investigation (Sept. 6), free agent
|Underwent Tommy John surgery (Sept. 1)
|Traded to Guardians (July 26)
|Underwent shoulder surgery (Nov. 3)
|Underwent Tommy John and flexor tendon surgery (July 18)
That table doesn’t even include Lance Lynn, whom the Dodgers acquired from the White Sox on July 30 and who pitched so unimpressively after replacing Syndergaard that the team declined his $18 million option; he signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Cardinals.
As for the new look, in addition to Yamamoto, whom the Dodgers signed to a 12-year, $325 million deal last month, the team traded for Tyler Glasnow, who signed a four-year, $110 million extension as part of the deal, then added James Paxton on a one-year, $7 million deal. Walker Buehler, who underwent late-2022 Tommy John surgery, will return in May, as the Dodgers want to limit his workload with an eye towards having him available in October; Emmet Sheehan, a rookie last year, will likely take his spot. The only starter from the end of last season who will be returning to his post immediately is Bobby Miller, fresh off a stellar rookie campaign.
That’s half a dozen pitchers right there for what may well be a six-man rotation, at least at times. Righties Michael Grove, Gavin Stone, and Kyle Hurt will serve as depth at Triple-A Oklahoma City, with lefty Ryan Yarbrough available to provide length as a starter or bulk pitcher as well. With May hoping to return at some point after the All-Star break, and Kershaw also coming back, the Dodgers should be able to mix-and-match their way around so many pitchers with injury and workload concerns. Ultimately, they should be able to assemble a stronger playoff rotation than last year, when Kershaw, Miller, and Lynn combined for just 4.2 innings against the Diamondbacks.
Upon returning, Kershaw will resume his pursuit of 3,000 strikeouts, probably the last major milestone within his reach. He’s 56 strikeouts away from becoming the 20th pitcher to reach that plateau, and would be just the fourth southpaw to do so after Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, and CC Sabathia. Former teammate Zack Greinke is 21 strikeouts away from 3,000, and could beat Kershaw to the milestone if he decides to pitch in 2024. Both would join Scherzer and Justin Verlander among the active pitchers in that club, though any way you slice it, all four are headed for Cooperstown, almost certainly on the first ballot. This decision leaves intact Kershaw’s chance to become just the seventh post-World War II pitcher to reach the Hall after spending his entire career with one team, after Whitey Ford (Yankees 1950–67), Sandy Koufax (1955–66), Don Drysdale (1956-69), Bob Gibson (Cardinals 1959–75), Jim Palmer (Orioles 1965–84), and Mariano Rivera (Yankees 1995–2013).
Given their star power and their depth, the Dodgers didn’t need to retain Kershaw in order to be heavy favorites to win the National League West. While it wasn’t vital from a competitive standpoint, it’s nonetheless a welcome bit of preserved continuity in the face of changes. With the retirement of Adam Wainwright, the returning Kershaw becomes the longest-tenured player with his current team, beating out Salvador Perez, who joined the Royals organization four months after Kershaw was drafted in 2006. Still, it wouldn’t mean much if Kershaw couldn’t help the team. By re-signing him, the Dodgers have added a pitcher who, even amid the injuries that have limited him to an average of 127 innings since 2021, has remained an above-average pitcher, one who’s still capable of producing thrills.