Dodgers Once Again Lose Kershaw, and an Air of Invulnerability by Jay Jaffe August 8, 2022 Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports In what may prove to be their highest impact move of the trade deadline, the Dodgers traded swingman Mitch White to the Blue Jays as part of a four-player deal that lessened the immediate depth of their rotation. Less than 48 hours later, they watched as Clayton Kershaw once again left the mound in the company of a trainer, his future availability in doubt. While the combination of the trade and the loss of the three-time Cy Young winner isn’t likely to threaten their stranglehold on the NL West, the Dodgers suddenly have little margin for error when it comes to assembling a strong rotation for October — an issue that they’re all too familiar with after last year. Kershaw left Thursday afternoon’s start against the Giants after experiencing lower back pain while warming up for the bottom of the fifth inning. Via MLB.com’s Juan Toribio: “Kershaw felt his back tighten up after his penultimate warmup throw. He then tried to throw one more to test the back, but immediately motioned over to the Dodgers dugout.” The 34-year-old lefty underwent an MRI that didn’t yield any surprises, but he received an epidural injection to counter the pain and was placed on the 15-day injured list. “There wasn’t any new findings, so that’s a positive,” said manager Dave Roberts “This was the best-case scenario coming from the MRI.” A best case scenario still is likely to mean a substantial absence for Kershaw. This is his seventh time in nine seasons missing time due to a back injury, and the second time this year; he had never doubled up before: Clayton Kershaw’s Back Injuries Start End Days Description 3/26/14 5/6/14 41 inflammation 6/27/16 9/9/16 74 slight herniation in lower back 7/24/17 9/1/17 39 lower back strain 6/1/18 6/23/18 22 lower back strain 7/23/20 8/2/20 10 lower back stiffness 5/9/22 6/11/22 33 SI joint inflammation 8/5/22 — — lower back pain SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus & MLB.com That’s an average of 36 games missed for the previous six absences, with four of the six lasting longer than one month. An absence of similar length would still leave Kershaw enough time get a few regular-season turns under his belt before the playoffs, but any kind of setback could threaten his October availability. As Dodgers fans recall, that was the case with regards to Kershaw’s elbow injury last year. He went on the IL on July 7 due to inflammation, and while he and the team believed he had recovered enough to throw three simulated innings 20 days later, he ultimately didn’t return until September 13. He didn’t throw more than 74 pitches in any of his four turns before discomfort in his left forearm forced him from the team’s October 2 game, effectively ruling him out for the postseason. The real bummer is that Kershaw has pitched so well this year, posting a 2.61 ERA and 2.71 FIP in 85.1 innings. Twice this season, on April 13 against the Twins and July 15 against the Angels, he threw seven perfect innings, something no other pitcher has done in the post-1960 expansion era. He made the NL All-Star team for the first time since 2019, and started the All-Star Game, a career first, at Dodger Stadium on July 19. Kershaw came out of the All-Star break with two of his least impressive outings of the season, yielding a combined nine runs (seven earned) in 9.2 innings against the Giants on July 24 and Rockies on July 30; those fluffed up his ERA from 2.13 to 2.56. Given that his All-Star experience consisted of just 17 pitches thrown to four batters without any additional travel, it’s farfetched to think that his participation caused the injury; if anything, by starting the game, he was able to avoid the less familiar situation of entering as a reliever. Even with Kershaw making only 15 starts thus far, the Dodgers have run away with the NL West. Their 4–0 victory over the Padres on Sunday evening was their eighth straight win and their 30th in their last 35 games. During that span, they’ve increased their division lead from 1.5 games to 15.5, in part by going 6–1 against San Diego. Yet while their rotation owns the NL lead in ERA (2.69) and ranks second in FIP (3.43) and third in WAR (11.4), it does not look invulnerable. In addition to Kershaw’s latest injury, they’ve been without Walker Buehler since June 10 due to a Grade 2 flexor tendon strain in his right elbow as well as surgery to remove a bone spur. He only recently began playing catch again and isn’t expected back until mid-September in yet another instance where the Dodgers can ill afford a setback; even if he does return on schedule, he may not be built up to a full starter workload. The breakout seasons of All-Star Tony Gonsolin (2.30 ERA, 3.46 FIP) and Tyler Anderson (2.89 ERA, 3.36 FIP) have helped to pick up the slack for Buehler and Kershaw, but Gonsolin will need his workload monitored as he pushes into uncharted waters. He’s thrown 109.2 innings, up from 68.1 last year between the majors and minors while dealing with recurrent shoulder inflammation, and hasn’t topped 81.1 innings since 2018, when he set a career high with 128. Beyond Gonsolin, Anderson (115.1 innings) and Julio Urías (115.2 innings), the Dodgers are in makeshift territory. Andrew Heaney has been brilliant when he’s pitched thanks to his new slider, posting a 0.64 ERA and 2.33 FIP, but he’s thrown just 28 innings over six starts and made two lengthy trips to the IL for shoulder woes. His three turns since returning have all been for fewer than five innings, with a maximum of 81 pitches. Given the aforementioned absences, the 27-year-old White had made 10 starts (sixth-highest on the team), with a 3.47 ERA and 4.05 FIP in 46.1 innings. After being yo-yoed between Triple-A and the majors 11 times last year — a plight that was addressed in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement — he had looked increasingly comfortable as a starter in recent weeks, lasting at least five innings in his last four starts and in six of eight before the trade to Toronto. In two of those final four starts, he held opponents (Colorado and San Francisco) to just one hit. Armed with a plus slider and a 93–95-mph fastball that lacks movement, White does not have overpowering stuff, as his overall 8.3% swinging-strike rate and 19.8% strikeout rate attest. In the grand scheme, the Dodgers have higher-ceiling pitchers in their system more likely to round out a future rotation in Ryan Pepiot and Bobby Miller. White, who’s out of options after this year, was less likely to figure in next year’s plans, hence the trade to Toronto. Miller, a 23-year-old righty with an upper-90s fastball and a plus slider, is still at Double-A and unlikely to figure in this year’s plans. Pepiot, a 24-year-old righty with a 70-grade changeup, has made four starts for the big club this year, posting a 2.76 ERA and 4.15 FIP but only once lasting even five innings. Scratched from Saturday’s start with Oklahoma City, he appears likely to take Kershaw’s turn in the rotation on Wednesday against the Twins, and perhaps a second one. By that point, the wild card in this whole sequence, Dustin May, might be ready to return to the majors. It’s been over 15 months since May’s high kick, flowing ginger locks, and triple-digit heat have been spotted on a major league mound. He was just five starts into his 2021 season — the first four of which featured 32 strikeouts, five walks, and six earned runs in 23.1 innings — when he tore his UCL. He underwent Tommy John surgery on May 12 of last year, returned to competition on July 16, and has made four appearances in his rehab assignment. In the last of those, on August 3 against the Salt Lake Bees, he threw 62 pitches, averaging 98.2 mph with his four-seamer and 96.5 with his sinker, showing off his five-pitch assortment (cutter, curveball, change being the others). In four innings, he got nine swings and misses and struck out six, with a 31% CSW. The Dodgers will decide after his next start, for which 75 pitches is the target, whether he is ready to return to the majors or needs one more start. Either way, he’s likely to fill the spot vacated by Kershaw. May has 113.2 major league innings under his belt via 19 starts and 12 relief appearances, with a 2.93 ERA, 3.83 FIP, and 24.2% strikeout rate. Unlike White or Pepiot, he already has postseason experience, having made three short, wobbly starts and six relief appearances in 2019 and ’20. The Dodgers, by their actions at the deadline, have placed a great deal of faith in his ability to return and pitch well enough that they won’t regret trading White without acquiring another starter somewhere. They reportedly pursued both Luis Castillo and Frankie Montas before they were traded elsewhere, and were unwilling to meet the Marlins’ asking price for Pablo López. In other words, even if they thought they had a healthy Kershaw, they were still going after frontline pitching. And not only did they fail to get any, but they also traded a pitcher who had spent the last five weeks as a productive member of their starting five. In the end, it’s still possible that the Dodgers will have both Kershaw and Buehler healthy and built up to handle a reasonable complement of October innings, in which case Roberts and Andrew Friedman can game out whether Gonsolin or Anderson is in better shape to join that pair and Urías in their playoff rotation. But it’s quite possible that at least one of them will be limited in usage, and the Dodgers are just a couple of hiccups away from debating whether it’s May or Heaney who’s best suited to join Urías, Gonsolin, and Anderson with both big guns on the sidelines. This isn’t mere abstraction, either. In last October’s postseason, the Dodgers were so banged up and off-kilter — recall that not only did they miss Kershaw but also that relief appearances of Max Scherzer and Urías forced them to juggle things — that they used openers three times, with Corey Knebel going twice (Game 5 of the Division Series against the Giants and Game 1 of the NLCS against the Braves) and Joe Kelly once (Game 5 of the NLCS). Somehow the Dodgers took two out of those three games, as well as four of the five in which May and Gonsolin started in 2020 but threw two innings or fewer. Those pitchers combined to allow seven runs in 8.2 innings, which is suboptimal to say the least; it’s a credit to the Dodgers’ offense and bullpen that they overcame those rough starts. As problems go, those of a team with a 15.5-game lead in early August generally aren’t the most pressing, but here the Dodgers are once again missing their ace, their face of the franchise, their future Hall of Famer, with the sting of last year’s mishaps still fresh. It might all work out fine, but maybe the rotation of the team with the best record in baseball will once again limp into October as something less than it could have been.