Column: Let’s hope this is not the last year of Clayton Kershaw in a Dodgers uniform
In any other year, this trip would have felt like a complete waste of time.
I rolled into Peoria Sports Complex on Sunday afternoon to check out Clayton Kershaw’s first Dodgers start of the spring, and it lasted about five minutes.
For the record:
7:45 PM, Feb. 25, 2018An earlier version of this column said opening day for the Dodgers was April 29. Opening day is March 29.
Typical Kershaw. Looked like June. Needed 11 pitches. Retired three Seattle Mariners big leaguers. None of them made good contact. It was over before it started. Yawn.
In any other year, this day would be a bore, but this year is different. This year, the mere sight of Kershaw standing on a mound is worth seeing, whenever possible, wherever possible.
Each scuff of the mound should be remembered. Each strikeout should be savored. Each sweaty growl should be heard.
Because this year could be Kershaw’s last year as a Dodger.
This is not news. You’ve read the stories. But do you comprehend the realities? At the end of this season, Kershaw can opt out of his contract and become a free agent, and it is foolish to think he would not do this.
After 11 years in one uniform, it would be his first chance to test his market value. He could use the opportunity to extend his current deal beyond its two remaining years after this season. He could sign a new contract that would carry him through the remainder of his baseball-playing life. He would have control, and he could take control, and nobody would blame him for it.
It is also foolish to think that he would easily leave, or that the Dodgers make it easy for him to leave. He is their cornerstone. He is their future statue. He could become the only Dodgers Hall of Famer to spend his entire career with the Los Angeles franchise. That will probably mean something to Kershaw and ownership when it comes time to crunch the numbers.
But still, a couple of things could happen in the next six months that would definitely send him packing, enough that it’s worth watching and worrying.
What if his nagging back bites him again, he sits out a chunk of the season for the third consecutive year, and the Dodgers don’t want to make the long-term investment in a 30-year-old that another more desperate team would make? In case you haven’t noticed, this front office doesn’t like long-term deals for aging arms and creaky backs.
Conversely, what if the Dodgers win a World Series for the first time in 30 years and a playoff-vindicated Kershaw just wants to go home to Texas?
That last choice could be the most probable, and difficult: Does Kershaw value a lasting legacy in Los Angeles or a hometown life in Dallas?
The easiest way for both parties to end his impending drama would be for everyone to agree upon that extension, but it appears that, for now, both sides want to wait on Kershaw’s physical condition and baseball’s potential free-agent landscape. But that could change in a week or a month, who knows?
Kershaw will be paid $33 million this year, with scheduled salaries of $32 million in 2019 and $33 million in 2020, so he would hold all the cards in negotiations that could be protracted and fluid.
Last week, general manager Farhan Zaidi said that Kershaw and the front office were maintaining an ‘’open dialogue.’’
I asked Kershaw on Sunday about Zaidi’s quote and he endorsed it.
“I think that’s a good way to put it, for sure,’’ he said.
“We just talk,’’ Kershaw said. “Farhan, [baseball operations boss] Andrew [Friedman] and I have good communication. We’re all on the same page as far as everything is going.’’
Kershaw has made it clear he doesn’t want to talk much beyond that, telling reporters this offseason that “I need to go pitch, 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.’’
That is truly the bottom line in all of this. Kershaw just needs to go pitch, and Dodgers management needs to watch, and this whole cloudy situation will eventually become clear.
What could forever remain murky is the feelings of Dodgers fans. They seem to unconditionally love Kershaw, giving him the loudest ovation at the recent fan festival, and would be generally devastated at his departure. But underneath the applause there will be always be grumblings about his postseason.
On one hand, he is truly the greatest pitcher on the planet, and one of the greatest ever, with a career 2.36 earned-run average that, since the start of the live ball era in 1920, ranks as the lowest among all starting pitchers with more than 1,500 innings pitched.
Since making his debut in 2008, he has amazingly led the major leagues in ERA, opponents’ average, WHIP, shutouts and winning percentage. That’s an entire decade of being the best pitcher in the game. He could retire tomorrow and be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
He has been Los Angeles’ baseball version of Kobe Bryant, with one major exception. He doesn’t have a championship ring, and has struggled in October, all those long nights against St. Louis, two years ago in Chicago, and most recently giving up leads of three and four runs in a pivotal Game 5 of last year’s World Series against Houston.
Do you want him to remain a Dodger forever because he is the greatest pitcher of his generation? Or are you so upset with how even his greatest seasons have ended that you don’t really care?
No matter how you feel about him, for the thrills he has brought to this city for a solid decade, Kershaw should be embraced in what could be his final season in L.A. It begins March 29 against the San Francisco Giants, when he will make a Dodgers-record eighth opening-day start, ending a tie with Don Drysdale and Don Sutton.
If Kershaw wants to look at those two Hall of Famers for guidance, he can consider their two divergent paths. Drysdale spent his entire career with the Dodgers and is still idolized in L.A. Sutton did not, and, regrettably, is not.
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