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Clayton Kershaw, like rest of baseball, waits for hot stove to heat up

Clayton Kershaw, like rest of baseball, waits for hot stove to heat up
Clayton Kershaw went 18-4 last season with a 2.31 earned-run average. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As a winter of austerity for the Dodgers comes to a close, Clayton Kershaw is still spending five days a week with the most talented pitcher on the free-agent market.

Yu Darvish has joined Kershaw's winter-time stable of throwing partners in Dallas, building upon a friendship that began when the Dodgers acquired Darvish this summer.

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Darvish has not hidden his desire to return to Los Angeles. In the aftermath of his tumultuous start in the final game of the World Series, Darvish hoped to atone for his collapse. That opportunity is still a possibility, even though the financial complications have not changed.

"We don't talk a ton about where he's at," Kershaw said Friday at a community event in Alhambra where several Dodgers helped build a playground. "Obviously, I've made my sales pitch. We'll see what happens …

"We don't talk about what kind of offers he's gotten, or anything like that. I don't want to pressure him too much. But he looks good playing catch, I'll say that."

Like the overwhelming majority of free agents — a group that includes slugging outfielder J.D. Martinez, former National League Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta and 28-year-old first baseman Eric Hosmer — Darvish remains unsigned as the final week of January approached.

The Dodgers remain interested, though the team would need to slash its payroll in order to retain him. The team has elected to effectively sit out the free-agent class this winter, reset its luxury-tax payroll beneath the $197-million threshold and reduce the penalties it would face by splurging on next year's class — which could include Kershaw.

Dodgers executives stress the strength of their roster. The team won 104 games in 2017 and reached the World Series for the first time since 1988. The majority of the group will return for 2018, with top prospects such as pitcher Walker Buehler and outfielder Alex Verdugo close to contributing.

Kershaw recognized the logic of his team's stance. But he offered an explanation for why players are frustrated by teams who are wary of paying the competitive balance tax for exceeding the luxury-tax threshold.

"It's tough," Kershaw said. "Our team that we have is so good, obviously. And we know that. I think more than anything, it's not just the Dodgers, but the way the market is going right now, in general.

"Everybody talks about the C.B.T. and all this stuff about which teams can't spend, which teams can spend. Maybe that's on the players association for what we agreed to, but at the same time, we don't care if they go over [the threshold]. They've made enough money where they can spend money if they need to.

"That's not for us to worry about. We just want to have the best team possible. And I think we have a pretty good team now."

The opening day payroll of the Dodgers has exceeded $216 million every season since 2013, and the team has boasted the largest payroll in the sport for the past four years. Its pivot this offseason is to increase its flexibility for next winter. Kershaw could headline a class of free agents that is expected to include Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, Cleveland Indians reliever Andrew Miller and Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson.

Kershaw can opt out of his contract after 2018. He declined to reveal his intentions, and said his focus was on his health. He has averaged 162 innings in the regular season the past two years as he dealt with back injuries.

"I need to go pitch," Kershaw said. "And then everything will take care of itself from there. There might be a decision, but at the end of the day I've just got to go pitch and figure it out from there."

Kershaw indicated he expected the market to improve for players next winter, when teams such as the Dodgers and New York Yankees should be more willing to spend after resetting their luxury-tax penalties. Even so, he joined a growing chorus of players who have expressed concern about the unwillingness of teams to spend on the sport's labor force.

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"I don't have access to all the teams' books," Kershaw said. "I don't know how much each team is making or how much they're spending, the revenue sharing money if they're spending it back on the players. We all don't know that stuff.

"We do know that we feel like the game is in a good spot. We feel like the game is thriving, for sure. We want to make sure that everybody is getting what they deserve. As a union, we're definitely aware of what's going on."

The uncertainty for the sport, one in which Kershaw plays such a significant role, serves as the backdrop for the 2018 season. Kershaw insisted he would not let concern about the future, for either himself or for his industry, distract from his goals for this year.

"There's no noise," Kershaw said. "We were one game short of winning a World Series. That's my only focus. That won't change."

Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter @McCulloughTimes

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