If Clayton Kershaw wants to pitch for the Dodgers again, he will.
“Absolutely,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said last month.
By the time Friedman spoke during his annual season-in-review news conference, he already was familiar with the severity of Kershaw’s shoulder problems, which required the 35-year-old left-hander to undergo a procedure Friday to repair gleno-humeral ligaments and a capsule in the joint.
“I am hopeful to return to play at some point next summer,” Kershaw wrote on Instagram.
Friedman has reiterated his long-standing position that if Kershaw wants to remain with the Dodgers, the organization will make it happen.
Friedman said of Kershaw and his wife, Ellen: “The ball’s squarely in their court.”
Except it shouldn’t be.
The Dodgers shouldn’t just wait for him to decide whether to resume his career with them or his hometown Texas Rangers. They should actively remind him this is where he wants to be.
There are baseball reasons for them to want him back, namely that he still can pitch. Kershaw made $20 million this year and was 13-5 with a 2.46 earned-run average in 24 regular-season starts.
The sport’s other $20-million starting pitchers this season included Miles Mikolas of the St. Louis Cardinals (9-13, 4.78 ERA, 35 starts), Charlie Morton of the Atlanta Braves (14-12, 3.64, 30 starts), Joe Musgrove of the San Diego Padres (10-3, 3.05, 17 starts), and Hyun-Jin Ryu (3-3, 3.46, 11 starts).
The Dodgers shouldn’t count on Kershaw to be a Game 1 starter in the postseason, but as a No. 3 or 4 starter, they could do considerably worse.
But the Rangers can offer Kershaw something the Dodgers can’t. The Rangers’ home of Globe Life Park is a short drive from Kershaw’s home in suburban Dallas. In the last couple of years, Kershaw has spent significant time away from his wife and four children.
The deterrent that kept Kershaw from signing with the Rangers — basically, they were a bad team — is no longer a problem. The Rangers are now the World Series champions.
The situation calls for the Dodgers to be proactive. They can’t take the chance of waiting for Kershaw to be ready to pitch. They would be smart to approach him about a multiyear contract with the understanding he could spend the entire first year in rehabilitation.
There’s precedent for this sort of deal.
The Dodgers tendered Walker Buehler a contract last winter and ultimately agreed to an $8-million salary even though they knew he was unlikely to throw a single major league pitch this year. They did so not to be charitable, but to keep him under team control for next season.
They also signed free-agent reliever Tommy Kahnle to a two-year, $4.75-million deal before the 2021 season. Kahnle was recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery and the Dodgers knew he wouldn’t be able to pitch in Year 1. As it turned out, Kahnle barely pitched for the Dodgers at all, as injuries limited him to 13 regular-season appearances in 2022.
If the Dodgers made such accommodations for Buehler and Kahnle, they certainly could do the same for Kershaw, the franchise’s all-time strikeouts leader.
The more difficult task for the Dodgers could be to convince him that, well, they’re still the Dodgers.
Kershaw broke into the league when front offices weren’t as controlling, when players had more agency. The shift in the game’s power dynamics also has changed the culture. For better or worse, no organization represents these transformations as much as the Dodgers.
His family situation aside, does Kershaw still want to be here?
How Kershaw views the Dodgers is a reflection of what they have become, and they should be mindful of his opinion. He is a pitcher who transcends generations, one who links them to a version of the game that no longer is played. He is their last connection to a tradition of distinguished starting pitching from which they gradually have separated themselves.
The Dodgers lose Kershaw and they’re just another sabermetrically-driven organization. His decision could affect the choices of future free agents with romanticized visions of the game.
Besides, how could they let him finish his career with Rangers? The Rangers might be World Series champions, but they still have nearly 500 more losses than wins.
Kershaw pitching for the Rangers would be like if Sandy Koufax had pitched for the New York Mets, or if Kobe Bryant had played for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Whatever he decides to do, Kershaw will remain a Dodgers symbol. He will have a plaque in Cooperstown. He will have a statue outside of Dodger Stadium. They have to remind him he still could be more than that. They need him as much for his presence as they do for his pitching, and if they haven't reminded him of that already, that should be the next call they make this offseason.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.