Left-hander Clayton Kershaw announced on Instagram that he underwent a surgical procedure this morning to repair the gleno-humeral ligaments and capsule of his left shoulder. He says that he is “hopeful to return to play at some point next summer.”
Kershaw, 35, had a strange campaign in 2023. He had made 16 starts through the end of June with typically strong results, holding an ERA of 2.55 at that time. He was placed on the injured list in early July due to some shoulder soreness. It didn't seem especially concerning at that time, with the hope seeming to be that the All-Star break would allow him to miss just one or two turns through the rotation.
However, a couple of weeks later, there seemed to be some confusion around the issue. He underwent an MRI in the middle of July and wasn't activated from the IL, although he wasn't in any pain. “I feel completely fine. The shoulder feels good,” Kershaw said at the time. “I've just been told it has to rest. It's a weird deal. I've never had anything like it, to the point where, like I'm gonna go play catch today and throw it as hard as I can, and they say it needs to rest. It's just weird, honestly. I don't know what to make of it. But I'm just gonna have to listen to [doctors].”
He was eventually activated in early August, with more confusion to come. His results continued to be strong, as he posted an ERA of 2.23 in his final eight starts of the year. But he was clearly working with diminished stuff. While he averaged above 91 MPH on his fastball prior to that IL stint, it was down to 90.2 MPH in August and 88.6 MPH in September. His slider also lost a few ticks as the season wore on. Although he was able to continue pitching well in the regular season, the wheels finally came off in the playoffs. Kershaw was lit up in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Diamondbacks, allowing six earned runs while only recording one out.
It seems Kershaw finally got some answers from the medical community and went under the knife today. While solving the mystery around his ailment provides some clarity, it seems there's plenty of uncertainty ahead. This appears to be the first time the phrase “gleno-humeral” has appeared on the pages of MLBTR, suggesting this isn't a particularly common procedure to be working back from. Kershaw has also had plenty of other ailments in the recent parts of his career. His 131 2/3 innings pitched in 2023 were the most he's logged since 2019, spending time on the IL in recent years due to back stiffness, left elbow inflammation, left forearm discomfort, right SI joint inflammation, low back pain and the recent shoulder soreness.
Even without the health issues, Kershaw has gone into the past two offseasons with an uncertain path forward. It was seen by many that he was deciding between returning to the Dodgers, joining his hometown Rangers or retiring. In both cases, he returned to the Dodgers on a one-year deal, with a $17MM salary in 2022 and $20MM this past year. Last month, he again expressed uncertainty about his future going into free agency once more.
The Dodgers opted against issuing Kershaw a qualifying offer in those two years, though he would have deserved one based on his performance. As a sign of respect to the long-tenured player, they afforded him the freedom to take his time making a decision, whereas issuing a QO would have required Kershaw accept or decline within a few days of receiving it. They were presumably planning the same course of action this winter but this surgery would seemingly take the QO off the table even if they were considering it.
More information will likely trickle out over the winter, but the fact that Kershaw is “hopeful” of returning to play in the summer suggests that it's not a guarantee. Perhaps he will spend some time rehabbing and trying to get healthy before signing a new contract, though that's entirely speculative.
For the Dodgers, they likely have to proceed under the assumption that they can't count on Kershaw, though president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman previously stated they would welcome him back. Beyond the fact that he's not officially on the team anymore, it's not certain he will be able to rejoin them even if he were willing to do so. In addition to Kershaw, Julio Urías and Lance Lynn are now free agents, with the club declining an option on the latter today. Tony Gonsolin could miss all of 2024 due to Tommy John surgery, while Dustin May's flexor tendon surgery should keep him out for at least the first half of 2024.
That leaves the Dodgers' on-paper rotation with Walker Buehler, who missed all of 2023 recovering from his own TJS, in the top spot. He is followed by guys with very limited experience, such as Bobby Miller, Ryan Pepiot, Michael Grove, Emmet Sheehan and Gavin Stone. There's also Ryan Yarbrough, though he might wind up non-tendered, the same way the Rays cut him loose a year ago.
Though the Kershaw news may complicate things, the Dodgers do have plenty of money to work with and figure to be active in all levels of free agency. The top of the market features names like Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Aaron Nola and Jordan Montgomery, though there are plenty of other intriguing names from Sonny Gray to Lucas Giolito and Jack Flaherty and many more.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.