There is likely no player more synymous with the Dodgers at this point than Clayton Kershaw.
He’s a future Hall of Famer, who has won three Cy Youngs and an MVP and has been named to eight All-Star teams. He has been on the Dodgers longer than anyone currently on the team, and has been an integral part of turning the team into an annual World Series favorite.
But as the Dodgers prepare to navigate a potentially tumultuous offseason with several key players hitting free agency, they opted against a qualifying offer to Kershaw as the 33-year-old prepares to hit free agency. The qualifying offer is a one-year, $18.5 million contract — the figure is based on the average of the top 125 highest single-year salaries — that enable a team to receive compensation if the player turns down the contract and signs with another team.
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With Kershaw now hitting free agency without that guaranteed contract offer to return, the future of his potential return to Los Angeles becomes a bit murky. So what’s next for the star left-hander?
Why the Dodgers didn’t extend a qualifying offer to Kershaw
All we can do is speculate as to the Dodgers’ real motives, but on face value this isn’t an inherently strange decision.
Kershaw posted the highest single-season ERA he’s had since his rookie season of 2008 (3.55) and tied his single-lowest Fangraphs WAR for a full season — not counting the COVID-shortened 2020 season — since his first campaign as well (3.4).
He also finished the season with only 121.2 innings of work on the mound, also a non-2020 low since 2008 as he battled injuries. He had forearm inflammation in July that placed him on the injured list coming off a start on July 3. He wouldn’t pitch again until Sept. 13.
Kershaw then ended the season with a forearm/elbow injury that he described as being “kind of the same thing I’ve been dealing with.”
An MRI did not show any damage to his UCL, and he received a platelet-rich plasma injection, according to Dodger Blue, that he said would help him avoid surgery.
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Though avoiding surgery is a major boon for Kershaw, it does not necessarily mean he’s out of the woods. Shohei Ohtani had a sprain to his UCL in 2018 and received PRP before ultimately needing to undergo Tommy John surgery. Similarly, Justin Verlander attempted to hold off on Tommy John surgery by using PRP before ultimately needing the procedure.
This isn’t to say that Kershaw could need Tommy John surgery, but it is also far from a guarantee that he’s cleared. And at 33 years old, there’s no telling how much longer his arm will hold up.
Now combine the injury risk with a long list of players who needed qualifying offers or could be possible targets to re-sign. The Dodgers offered qualifying offers to shortstop Corey Seager and utility bat Chris Taylor. Max Scherzer was ineligible to receive the offer as he was acquired at the trade deadline.
The Dodgers already have one of the largest payrolls in baseball and will all but certainly make attempts to re-sign Scherzer, closer Kenley Jansen and Taylor — the presence of Trea Turner makes resigning Seager less of a priority.
Would the Dodgers be willing to risk Kershaw accepting the qualifying offer and adding $18.5 million to their payroll, only to have him potentially miss a good chunk of the season should another injury pop up? Apparently not.
What’s next for Kershaw, Dodgers?
Kershaw is now a free agent. And though he might feel like a Dodger lifer as iconic as Sandy Koufax, there is now a real possibility that he goes to play somewhere else.
One team that potentially makes sense for him would be the Rangers. Kershaw is a Dallas native and the Rangers have the most luxury tax space for 2022, according to Spotrac. And according to The Dallas Morning News, he could be an early target as the team looks to drastically improve its roster.
Even with the injury risk, there are certainly going to be plenty of teams interested in pursuing the services of Kershaw. He’s an experienced pitcher who, when on the mound, remains one of the most consistent in the sport.
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And it’s still possible the Dodgers re-sign him. They could try to keep him anchored in Los Angeles as they try to figure out what the rest of the rotation will look like. After all, it is no guarantee that Scherzer will return, and the rotation is still in a difficult position.
Trevor Bauer, the team’s big free-agent signing before 2021, exercised his player option for 2022, but as he is being investigated for sexual assault, his future with the team is completely up in the air. Dustin May is coming off Tommy John surgery himself and might not be available to pitch again until midseason, and even then he’ll likely be eased back into the rotation.
The only pitchers at this point all but guaranteed to return to the rotation are Walker Buehler and Julio Urias, while Tony Gonsolin seems like a good bet to join the rotation if significant upgrades aren’t made.
Don’t count out a reunion of Kershaw and the Dodgers just yet. But don’t be surprised either if his days of pitching at Chavez Ravine in a home uniform are over.