Column: Enjoy Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager and Kenley Jansen while you can, Dodgers fans
Similar alarm bells sounded three years ago when Kershaw was eligible to become a free agent at the end of the season. He didn’t seem likely to leave then, but even the slightest of possibilities was disconcerting enough.
Now, with the Dodgers’ pitchers and catchers days from their first spring training workout, the feeling is different.
Last month, Kershaw opened his Dallas home to Jorge Castillo, the Dodgers beat writer for The Times. They covered a variety of subjects, the interview resulting in a revealing story published last week.
The Dodgers are keeping hometown hero Justin Turner for at least two more seasons, and the deal made too much sense for both sides to not happen.
Based on what Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, told Castillo, it’s entirely imaginable that the 32-year-old left-hander retires or signs with his hometown Texas Rangers next winter.
Kershaw’s departure would bring into focus a transition that has already started to take place. One generation of Dodgers is being replaced by another.
Before the championship series last season, the team parted ways with three pitchers who were a key part of its failed efforts to win the World Series in recent years: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda.
In the wake of the Dodgers’ triumph, they decided not to re-sign free agents Joc Pederson, a homegrown outfielder and former rookie of the year, and Kiké Hernández, a valuable utility man acquired in baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman’s first offseason with the Dodgers in one of the many trades that turned over the roster.
Over the next year or two, there could also be major shifts in the team’s foundation.
Justin Turner re-signed for two more years, but he’s already 36. Kenley Jansen, 33, was replaced as the team’s closer in the playoffs last year, and is entering the final season of his five-year contract.
Next winter, in addition to Kershaw, shortstop Corey Seager will be a free agent. Seager was drafted in the first round by the Dodgers, became an all-star with the Dodgers and an October hero with the Dodgers.
These are not peripheral players. These are parts of the team’s nucleus.
By trading for Mookie Betts last year and signing him to a 12-year deal soon after, Friedman secured the team’s offensive centerpiece for the foreseeable future.
Walker Buehler is now the team’s Game 1 starter in the postseason, a role that belonged to Kershaw for several years. Newly acquired Trevor Bauer should provide the Dodgers with a short-term hedge in case Kershaw departs in seven or eight months.
Teams change. Players come and go. That’s part of sports.
The Dodgers’ payroll for 2021 is over $250 million, triggering the top luxury tax penalty. They’re paying what they think is necessary to win another title.
Some franchises are fortunate enough to have long-tenured players who help camouflage this reality, iconic figures whose presence serves as a tangible link to previous seasons and whose spirit feels like a permanent part of the organization’s ethos.
That’s what the Dodgers have in Kershaw, Jansen and Turner and, to a lesser extent, the 26-year-old Seager.
Entering his 14th major league season, Kershaw connects Betts to Manny Ramirez and Dave Roberts to Joe Torre. His friendship with Sandy Koufax bridges multiple generations.
Kershaw and Jansen emerged as stars when the Dodgers were driven into bankruptcy by Frank McCourt. They are reminders of this glorious period in Dodgers history ultimately because of the infusion of cash that followed the team’s sale to Guggenheim.
History feels less distant with players such as them around.
Enjoy them while they’re still here.
Celebrate Turner’s transformation from castoff to all-star. Applaud Jansen for the burdens he placed on his now-depleted arm to build what ultimately became a championship culture. Marvel at how Seager matched, if not exceeded, the hype that accompanied him as a top minor league prospect.
In the case of Kershaw, enjoy knowing the Dodgers have a pitcher who will do everything in his power to prepare for his next start, who will find a way to compete on days he doesn’t have his best stuff, and who won’t make excuses for his failures.
Kershaw can leave this behind and be at peace.
He’s earned well over $200 million. He was finally relieved of a heavy burden when the Dodgers won the World Series in October. And as an engaged father who volunteers at his daughter’s school cafeteria and is a member of the school’s dads club, he has something to look forward to in retirement.
So don’t be surprised if he leaves. Just know the Dodgers will feel like a different team after that.
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