Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw happy with offseason decisions, eyes July return

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Thursday, February 8, 2024

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The abrupt end to Clayton Kershaw's 2023 season triggered a combination of decisions unlike any he had ever confronted, from the health of his shoulder to his desire to keep pitching to, ultimately, whether he'd return to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"I'd really never made a big decision in my life," Kershaw said. "I got drafted by the Dodgers, married the same girl from high school. I didn't really have many decisions to make along the way. This was kind of the first offseason that I had some choices to make, and it wasn't easy. But I feel really good about it now."

Kershaw underwent his physical at the Dodgers' spring training facility in Glendale, Arizona, on Thursday morning. His sixth contract with the Dodgers, a one-year deal with a player option for 2025, was expected to become official later that afternoon.

Kershaw underwent surgery to repair the glenohumeral ligaments and capsule of his left shoulder on the morning of Nov. 2 and is now into the second week of his throwing progression. His timetable to return is still quite vague, but Kershaw said somewhere around July or August might be realistic. He left for home in Texas immediately after addressing the media and plans to return to the Dodgers some time in early March, when he's further along in his progression.

"The freedom of not trying to get ready for a full season is kind of nice," Kershaw said. "It's just going to be a sprint when I get back. There's a little bit of comfort in that, honestly. You don't have to be ready April 1st. You can be ready whenever that is in the summer and kind of be ready to go."

The Dodgers will have plenty of cover in the meantime, with Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Tyler Glasnow and James Paxton joining a group that already included Walker Buehler, Bobby Miller and Emmet Sheehan, among others.

Kershaw spent all of July sidelined by a sore shoulder, but he returned to post a 2.23 ERA over his last eight starts of the 2023 regular season despite struggling to reach 90 mph with his fastball. Kershaw then imploded in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, giving up six runs and recording only one out against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was preparing to start again in Game 4, but the Dodgers -- a 100-win team for the third straight year -- were swept in three games.

It became clear shortly thereafter that shoulder surgery was the only route toward pitching in the major leagues again. But Kershaw wasn't immediately certain about returning for a 17th season. The first couple weeks of his offseason were spent assessing his immediate future. His children weren't much help.

"They were kind of indifferent," Kershaw said, "which I was thankful for honestly."

The way his season ended -- walking off the Dodger Stadium mound in the first inning of his team's much-hyped postseason run, in the wake of his worst-ever outing -- might have been the deciding factor.

"Didn't want to go out that way," Kershaw said. "I think that's ultimately how I came to it. And then once we started gathering more information, realizing that surgery is probably the best option, it gave me a little bit of clarity with everything."

Kershaw, who will undoubtedly be voted into the Hall of Fame as soon as he becomes eligible, finished within the top three in National League Cy Young Award voting every year from 2011 to 2015, during which he led the majors in wins (88), ERA (2.11) and WHIP (0.93). He went on the injured list every season thereafter, suffering ailments to his elbow, forearm, shoulder, hips, biceps and, most notably, back -- but he still managed to post a 2.55 ERA in that stretch, second to only Jacob deGrom among qualified pitchers.

Kershaw's offseason procedure addressed three ligaments at the front of his shoulder joint and represented the first major surgery of his career. The man who performed it, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, told him he'd be "good as new" coming off it.

"I expect to be good," Kershaw said. "I don't want to be average. I don't want to just pitch to pitch. I want to be good. I want to contribute, I want to be part of this."

The Dodgers -- with 10 division titles but only one championship, accomplished after the pandemic-shortened season in 2020, over these past 11 years -- lavished an unprecedented sum on players this winter. Signing Yamamoto and Shohei Ohtani alone cost more than $1 billion. They could have done nothing else and still put together an offseason for the ages, but they traded for -- and promptly extended -- Glasnow, then also signed Paxton, reliever Ryan Brasier and outfielder Teoscar Hernandez.

Kershaw, who agreed to terms Monday, was the cherry on top.

"This offseason's been pretty amazing to watch, honestly," Kershaw said. "There's definitely a part of me that wanted to be a part of that, part of this team. Obviously winning an offseason doesn't mean anything, but it's a pretty good clubhouse of guys. The talent is probably the best I've ever been a part of. I'm hopeful that I can be part of it, too.