Clayton Kershaw’s Back Keeps Him From Coming Backon July 24, 2020 at 2:05 pm

Clayton Kershaw’s Back Keeps Him From Coming Back

The universe in 2020, it seems, can’t abide happiness–at least not for the Dodgers. Just one day after the team announced a gigantic extension with Mookie Betts, locking up one of the best players in baseball for the next decade-plus, Los Angeles learned that it will be without Clayton Kershaw for a while. Hours ahead of what would’ve been his ninth career Opening Day start, Kershaw instead hit the Injured List with a back strain suffered while working out on Tuesday; per Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, there’s no timetable for his return.

This kind of malady has been frustratingly common for Kershaw, who’s battled his fair share of back pain over the last few seasons. A herniated disc sidelined him for two months in 2016, and back tightness cost him five weeks in 2017 and a month of action in 2018. The 32-year-old lefty managed to avoid further lumbar issues last season en route to a 3.03 ERA and 3.4 WAR in 178 1/3 innings (though shoulder inflammation resulted in an early-season IL stint). But as anyone with a perpetually sore spine will tell you, those problems are often chronic. As such, it has to be worrying for both Kershaw and the Dodgers that his back is once again the source of his woes, and while this strain could be minor, it also could result in a multi-week absence.

That’s no minor loss given how valuable Kershaw is: He was projected to be second on the staff in WAR at 1.4 (a hair behind Walker Buehler at 1.5) and tops alongside Buehler in innings and starts. The short season also hurts, as any time lost counts for far more in a 60-game year. But if there’s one team that can survive the loss of a three-time Cy Young winner, it’s Los Angeles. Owners of arguably the deepest pitching staff in the majors, the Dodgers have Buehler, Julio Urias, Ross Stripling and Alex Wood waiting behind Kershaw. To replace him directly, they called up gangly rookie Dustin May, their top pitching prospect per Eric Longenhagen. And Los Angeles’ player pool includes more potential solutions in hard-throwing righty Tony Gonsolin, who posted a 2.93 ERA in 40 innings with the big league club last season, as well as lefty Victor Gonzalez (No. 27 on the Dodgers prospect list) and righties Mitch White (No. 30) and Josiah Gray (No. 3, albeit 22 years old and with no experience above Double A). It helps to be rich.

It also helps when you’re far and away the best team in not only your division, but also your league. The Dodgers entered this truncated 2020 campaign with, per our odds, an 85.9% chance of making the postseason — and that promptly shot up to 95.0% after MLB announced on Thursday that it would be expanding the playoffs from eight teams to 16. Beyond that, Los Angeles is also the heavy favorite to win the NL West at 69.6%, with a projected four-game cushion on the second-place Padres. Kershaw’s loss may shrink that gap a bit, but probably not enough to make the Dodgers sweat all that hard. May, who handled Thursday’s opener win against the Giants and threw 4 1/3 frames of one-run ball, is also a more than adequate replacement, armed as he is with a fastball that sits 93-96 mph and touches 98, as well as a hard cutter and a slider with lots of vertical break and spin.

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Still, with Kershaw gone, the margin for error is now that much thinner for a rotation that was already without David Price, who opted out of the season over coronavirus concerns, and that shed Hyun Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill over the winter. (On top of that, another rotation depth option, ex-Brewer Jimmy Nelson, is on the injured list after undergoing back surgery that will likely keep him out for the entire season.) Kershaw hitting the IL won’t doom the Dodgers, but he’s probably the last leak the dam can spring before it begins to falls apart, and an extended stretch without him will put a strain on the rest of the starters to stay healthy. That’s no small task, particularly considering the worrisome injury histories of Urias and Wood. The depth is being tested early, and there’s not much left if things get hairier from here.

So while Kershaw’s absence alone won’t derail the Dodgers’ season, it’s a blow that leaves them that much weaker and that much closer to a tipping point. It’s certainly not the way you want to start things, but if Kershaw is only out for a few weeks, it’s not the end of the world. All bets are off, though, if he ends up on the shelf for longer than that.

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