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Joe Kelly expected to be ready for start of season. Will he be with Dodgers?

Dodgers starting pitcher Joe Kelly delivers a pitch during the first inning in Game 5 of the NLCS.
Dodgers starting pitcher Joe Kelly delivers a pitch during the first inning in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against Atlanta on Oct. 21.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Joe Kelly’s 2021 season ended when he walked off the mound at Dodger Stadium with a searing pain in his right arm.

It was Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. Kelly, the Dodgers’ opener, had thrown 24 pitches in the first inning. His velocity didn’t drop. His stuff didn’t appear compromised. But the pain in his upper arm became unbearable and the numbness in his forearm was impossible to ignore. So, he exited.

Kelly immediately went to the Dodgers’ training room where Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the team’s head physician, examined him. ElAttrache quickly determined that the pain stemmed from the musculocutaneous nerve in Kelly’s arm. He informed Kelly his season was over. The next step was figuring out if Kelly would avoid the worst-case scenario: a six-month recovery time.

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That answer came over the next two weeks. The worst cases include atrophy in the upper arm within seven to 10 days, according to ElAttrache. If atrophy surfaced, Kelly probably would’ve been shut down for six months. But atrophy didn’t materialize. As a result, ElAttrache has advised Kelly, who doesn’t have any structural damage in his arm, to resume throwing in six weeks. He’s expected to be ready for the 2022 season.

Last week, The Times reported that Kelly wasn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season. ElAttrache said that was the initial fear based on five previous cases he has encountered with major league pitchers, but Kelly’s case was different because he didn’t compound the injury. Kelly’s decision to remove himself from the game coupled with an early diagnosis helped avoid a long-term issue.

“If I was making a medical call for the Dodgers on him, if that was in the cards, I wouldn’t hesitate to advise the front office that he would be back for the first day of spring training,” ElAttrache said Friday.

Making that call could be in the cards for ElAttrache. The Dodgers declined Kelly’s $12 million option Saturday, but that doesn’t mean the reliever wouldn’t return to the team for 2022.

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Kelly, 33, will receive a $4 million buyout with his option being rejected. He will have multiple suitors once he hits the open market. The Dodgers are expected to be one of them.

The Dodgers had 11 players, not including Kelly, officially become free agents this week. On Friday, they outrighted left-hander Scott Alexander, right-hander Jimmie Sherfy and infielder Andy Burns off the 40-man roster.

Kelly rebounded from shoulder surgery last offseason to post a 2.86 earned-run average in 48 games for the Dodgers during the regular season. He was charged with three runs across 5 1/3 innings in seven playoff games.

The Dodgers signed Kelly to a three-year, $25 million contract with a team option for a fourth season after watching him dominate them in the 2018 World Series with the Boston Red Sox. The right-hander gave up two runs (one earned) in nine postseason appearances to help Boston win the championship. It was a homecoming for the Corona native and UC Riverside product.

His Dodgers career, however, got off to a rocky start. Bouts of wildness plagued him. He entered the 2019 All-Star break with a 5.28 earned-run average in 30 2/3 innings across 30 games. Kelly’s season ended by giving up the go-ahead grand slam to Howie Kendrick in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, but he had become a trusted option by then and remained that way through 2021 when healthy.

Some major decisions, including about pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, await the Dodgers on the look of their roster for the 2022 season.

Kelly’s 2.69 ERA since the 2019 All-Star break is tied for 22nd among relievers across the majors who have logged at least 70 innings. His 3.20 FIP is tied for 32nd. His 3.16 xFIP is 12th. He became one of the best relievers in the sport.

(FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. It’s a metric like ERA, but it’s designed to remove fielding from the equation to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness. It accounts for strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit by pitches and home runs; xFIP is short for Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. It uses projected home run rate instead of home runs allowed.)

Off the field, Kelly has become a fan favorite in his three seasons. Last season, he sparked a benches-clearing incident in Houston against the Astros and gave Carlos Correa a pouty face that has lived on in murals, T-shirts, and memes. This season, he traded a jersey for a mariachi suit with a performer at Dodger Stadium. He later wore the suit for the Dodgers’ White House visit, spawning the nickname Mariachi Joe.


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