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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – There really is nothing left for Clayton Kershaw, individual, to accomplish, not with his ninth season bearing down and three Cy Young Awards locked up and a Hall of Fame plaque ready to be etched no matter how the rest of his career goes. He is one of the best pitchers ever. This is a fact. Anyone who cares to disagree should join his or her fellow kind under a bridge.
For Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodger, the stakes are not quite as simple. However much he forges his own identity through achievement, Kershaw remains wedded to 24 other men in Dodgers uniforms whose fortunes directly affect his. Five times Kershaw has pitched in the postseason. Five times the Dodgers have failed to reach the World Series. Oddly enough, Kerhsaw defines himself in the same way as his detractors: Until the Dodgers win anything, what does the other stuff matter?
“As a team, nobody remembers anything about the playoffs except the Royals,” Kershaw said. “And personally, same thing. Maybe when you’re retired you can look back on it all, but nobody really cares after that season. At least I don’t. ...
“The way I look at it is once the season ends, nobody cares what you did except the Royals. Nobody cares anymore. [In] 2016, we’re all the exact same at this point. No one’s done anything.”
Kershaw stood in the visiting clubhouse at Salt River Fields after five spotless innings against the Colorado Rockies. Shoulder and elbow wrapped, 61 pitches under his belt, he looked – well, he looked like we’ve all come to expect Clayton Kershaw to look, which is some run-on string of adjectives that sounds like a sci-fi movie: The Relentless Incomparable Perfectionist Superhuman Pitching Automaton.
Over the last five seasons, Kershaw has thrown 1,128 innings – more than any other pitcher in the National League. He has a 2.11 ERA. That’s a full six-tenths of a run lower than the next best with at least 500 innings. His 1,249 strikeouts lead baseball. His 5.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio is best among active pitchers in that time. As are his 6.46 hits per nine innings. And his 0.53 homers per nine rank second – 1/100th of a point behind Adam Wainwright’s.
In other words, Clayton Kershaw has been better than everyone at everything for a half-decade now, and he’s still just 27 years old. And as everyone else marvels and gawks, in his mind it all amounts to bupkis.
“All the individual stuff will be great when you’re retired 10 years down the road,” Kershaw said. “You can look at it all. But it’s not why we play the game. Watching guys win the World Series, it looks like a lot of fun. I kind of would like to do that.”
For all of the guff the Dodgers took this offseason, a team eminently capable of doing so remains. Their strength is more in their depth than top-end talent. Any other team that lost starting pitchers Hyun-jin Ryu, Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy and Frankie Montas would court doom. The Dodgers signed Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda this offseason to buttress their rotation, and so long as Alex Wood’s left arm remains healthy – the team expects the forearm issues that caused him to miss his last start to heal soon – they’re in perfectly good position.
The prospect of using Julio Urias, the 19-year-old wunderkind, is both tantalizing and feasible, especially if they can take advantage of a deep bullpen to save him early in the season and an innings cap to do the same once the injured starters return. Rather than deal Urias or Corey Seager – considered by many the top prospect in baseball – last year for reinforcements with what was an ill-fated playoff push, the Dodgers refused to cave to public sentiment and alter the plan set forth by president Andrew Friedman and his lieutenants.
However much bellyaching comes from Dodgers fans, treating the 2016 season with some sort of increased urgency because the team hasn’t won a World Series since 1988 would be short-sighted. Poorly run teams allow themselves to tumble headlong into such traps. The keenest understand that long-term success rarely comes from dead-eyed focus on the short term. It’s why even though the Dodgers could use a top-of-the-rotation starter, and even though they’ve got Koch brothers money, they wouldn’t match the six-year, $206.5 million contract the Arizona Diamondbacks gave Zack Greinke.
The Dodgers believed they could get more out of $200 million than the age-32-38 seasons of a starting pitcher. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. Kazmir got $48 million. That’s 60 percent of what Mike Leake cost and less than three-quarters of Ian Kennedy. The total outlay for Maeda, one of Japan’s best starters whose arm questions crushed his market: eight years, $45 million, which he could earn back with two good seasons. Howie Kendrick returned for $20 million. His line over the last five years: .291/.337/.421. Daniel Murphy cost $37.5 million. His line over the last five years: .291/.331/.421.
This is where the Dodgers can win games: the little victories in efficiency that give them leeway to go after the bigger ones when the time is right. Certainly they’re not immune to bad moves – the Mat Latos trade last year was an unmitigated disaster – but even their under-the-radar dealings inspire confidence. They’ve spent like kings on Cuban players. They got Montas, Trayce Thompson and Micah Johnson, all three of whom could be big leaguers this season, for minor leaguer Jose Peraza and two lesser prospects.
The Dodgers’ farm system is their great equalizer, stocked with major league-ready players and trade chips if this team needs something come June or July. And that, really, depends on health and performance and whether these Dodgers need or merit an infusion. This could easily be a team right there with the Cubs and Mets and Nationals and Cardinals and Pirates and Giants among the league’s elite. And if it’s one that isn’t, 2017 and ’18 and ’19 and beyond look mighty good, with only one contract of any substance on the books in that final year.
Kershaw is signed through 2020, and if his fingers are ringless by then, he’ll be warranted in his restlessness. Even now, his lack of postseason success and his team’s eat at him like a toxic corrosive he wants to wash away. He’d rather spend his Octobers doing than seeing.
“Oh, yeah. I watch,” he said. “I enjoy it. I enjoy watching. I like baseball.”
As he tunes in to the World Series, he witnesses the dog piles, the Champagne, the parades, and he wants a piece of it all. He’s the best pitcher in baseball, one of the best the game has seen, and it’s still not enough. Clayton Kershaw, individual, is fulfilled. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodger, is just getting started.