Kershaw Lands on Injured List as Dodgers’ Rotation Uncertainty Grows

At the outset of the season, the Dodgers were forecast for a major league-high 100 wins thanks to their incredible depth, which included eight plausible candidates for their starting rotation. Thanks to a recent surge, 100 wins remains a realistic target — their .609 winning percentage puts them on pace for 99, and our updated projections forecast them for 98 — but that herd of starters has dwindled due to injuries and other matters. On Wednesday, that herd got even smaller, as the team placed Clayton Kershaw on the 10-day injured list due to a bout of inflammation in his left forearm.

According to manager Dave Roberts, Kershaw “felt something in the elbow” while playing catch earlier this week, but beyond that, there’s no indication as to the severity of his injury, or his prognosis. He’ll undergo an MRI and other tests after the team returns to Los Angeles for its weekend series with the Diamondbacks. With less than a week until the All-Star break, the timing of the move is such that he might only miss one start and would be eligible to return to action on Saturday, July 17.

That said, while this is the sixth season in a row that the three-time Cy Young winner has landed on the injured list, it’s the first time he’s been sidelined for an injury involving his forearm or elbow, and if he’s suffered a strain or a sprain — gulp — he could miss substantial time. Only last season, when he was scratched on Opening Day for a bout of lower back stiffness, has Kershaw returned from the IL as soon as he was eligible:

Clayton Kershaw’s Injured List Stints
Start End Days Injury
6/27/16 9/9/16 74 lower back herniated disc
7/24/17 9/1/17 39 lower back strain
5/3/18 5/31/18 28 left biceps tendonitis
6/1/18 6/23/18 22 lower back strain
3/25/19 4/15/19 21 left shoulder inflammation
7/23/20 8/2/20 10 lower back stiffness
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

The 33-year-old Kershaw has pitched well this season, posting a 3.39 ERA and 3.00 FIP in 106.1 innings and lasting at least six innings in 14 of his 18 starts. His FIP, 30.1% strikeout rate, and 25.6% strikeout-walk differential are all his best marks since 2016, respectively ranking sixth, ninth, and third in the NL; he’s also third in walk rate (4.5%). Even so, he was bypassed for a spot on the NL All-Star team, along with every other Dodgers pitcher, despite the team’s NL-low 3.21 ERA and its third-ranked 3.63 FIP. That could change as replacements are announced; Jacob deGrom, for example, has said he will decline his invitation in favor of resting his body and spending time with his family.

Kershaw last pitched on Saturday, when he allowed three runs in four innings against the Nationals in Washington. Shortly before rain sent the game into a 104-minute delay, he served up a game-tying three-run homer to Yan Gomes; understandably, he did not return once play resumed. In his previous start on June 27, he set season highs with eight innings and 13 strikeouts against the Cubs.

For the Dodgers, the injury comes at a time when the rotation — whose 3.03 ERA, 9.3 WAR, and 3.58 FIP respectively rank second, third and fourth in the NL — is somewhat depleted. In early May, Dustin May underwent Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament. On Friday, Major League Baseball placed Trevor Bauer on seven-day administrative leave in connection with two separate investigations into allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman, one a criminal investigation by the Pasadena Police Department and the other by the league itself in connection with its joint domestic violence policy, under which Bauer could face a significant suspension even if charges aren’t filed.

With law enforcement officials telling USA Today that their investigation is now “bigger than we thought” due to new leads, MLB is expected to ask the MLB Players Association to consent to extending that leave for at least another week. Asked on Monday whether he expected Bauer to be activated this week, manager Dave Roberts told reporters, “I don’t see that happening.” The Dodgers, after passing the buck to MLB when it came to placing him on leave (they could have scratched him from his scheduled July 4 start even without it), have moved to distance themselves from the pitcher whom they signed to a record-setting three-year, $102 million contract this past winter, canceling a scheduled bobblehead promotion and removing his merchandise from the team’s physical and virtual stores.

[Update: shortly after this article was published, MLB announced that Bauer’s leave has been extended for another seven days.]

That leaves the Dodgers with a rotation consisting of Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, Tony Gonsolin, and multiple question marks. Gonsolin missed the first two months of the season due to shoulder soreness and has been brought along slowly; only on Tuesday, in his fifth start (and sixth appearance overall) did he throw more than four innings or face more than 18 batters. Roberts has used six other pitchers to start bullpen or opener games, namely David Price, Jimmy Nelson, Garrett Cleavinger, Victor Gonzalez, Edwin Uceta, and Jake Reed, and their use of this gambit has increased in frequency lately:

  • Gonzalez started against the Nationals on July 1, with Gonsolin throwing three innings of relief in a game that was shortened to five innings due to rain.
  • Cleavenger started on July 4, the day that Bauer would have started if not for his leave; Price’s two innings constituted the longest stint of the eight pitchers used.
  • Reed started against the Marlins on Wednesday night, with Mitch White supplying four innings in a bulk role.

As the rotation lines up, Roberts and company will need to go this route in Kershaw’s stead on Friday against the Diamondbacks. That’s a lot of pitching changes.

On the current staff, Price — who said in the spring he was “ready for whatever” when it came to his role and has maintained that stance since — is the obvious candidate to be stretched out in case of a longer absence for either Kershaw or Bauer. On Thursday morning, when asked if the Dodgers could afford to keep him in the bullpen, Roberts conceded, “probably not.” After opting out last year due to COVID-19, the 35-year-old southpaw has made 23 appearances totaling 27.2 innings, pitching to a 3.58 ERA and 3.75 FIP, but has struck out just 21.7% of hitters, his lowest mark since 2013. Five of the 12 runs Price has allowed, and all three of the homers he’s served up, came in his first two outings of the season, as he was adapting to the bullpen role. Since then, he’s tightened up his performance, posting a 2.25 ERA and 2.13 FIP in 24 innings. While he’s been hit for a .402 BABIP overall, he hasn’t given up much hard contact; his 4.5% barrel rate is his Statcast-era low, placing him in the 88th percentile, his 37.1% hard-hit rate is in the 63rd percentile, and his 86.2 mph average exit velocity ranks in the 91st percentile.

Price’s highest pitch count thus far this season is 50, set on June 1 against the Cardinals, and his high in innings pitched is 2.2, set on May 27 against the Giants; his high for batters faced is 12, on April 5 against the A’s. In his most recent outing, he threw 42 pitches in two innings and faced eight hitters on July 4 against the Nationals. Asked on Saturday how many innings he could throw as a starter, he joked, “I mean, nine. If everybody gets out on the second pitch, that’s 54 pitches. I can do that.” Using the formula of 15–20 pitch increases from outing to outing, Price could theoretically be stretched out to about 60 pitches in a start (or bulk relief stint) on Friday or Saturday, then 75–80 in his next turn after the break, and a full starter’s complement — such as it is these days — of 90–100 thereafter.

Nelson, who made just three starts from 2018 to ’20 due to shoulder and back injuries, worked as a starter this spring but has pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen since, with a 1.2-inning start against the Marlins on May 16 the only deviation from that role. He worked his way into high-leverage duty by pitching to a 2.00 ERA and 1.80 FIP with a 38.7% strikeout rate in 27 innings. Carmen Ciardiello recently recounted Nelson’s saga, noting that the 32-year-old righty has emphasized his knuckle curve and slider in emerging as something of a bullpen ace. Given the rollercoasters that the Dodgers have often ridden in the late innings — Kenley Jansen’s 15.8% walk rate, I’m looking at you — they probably aren’t thinking of stretching out Nelson and costing themselves a reliable relief option.

As for other internal options, among the candidates are top prospect Josiah Gray, who’s at Triple-A Oklahoma City, and Ryan Pepiot, who’s at Double-A Tulsa. Gray, a 23-year-old righty who was acquired from the Reds in the December 2018 deal centered around Yasiel Puig, made his Triple-A debut on May 6, then was sidelined for two months due to shoulder impingement. He only returned to action on Sunday, throwing two innings and 27 pitches and adding a simulated inning in the bullpen afterwards. At the very least, he would need at least a couple more turns before being built up to a minimal starter’s workload. Pepiot, a 23-year-old righty who entered the season sixth on the Dodgers’ prospect list, has pitched to a 1.73 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 41.2 innings and struck out 36.3% of hitters; he boasts a plus-plus changeup that has drawn comparisons to Devin Williams‘ Airbender. On Sunday, he took a perfect game into the eighth inning before issuing a walk and set a professional career high with 11 strikeouts during his 87-pitch performance.

Particularly if either or both of Kershaw and Bauer face extended absences, the Dodgers will likely target a starting pitcher ahead of the July 30 trade deadline. Max Scherzer is expected to be the belle of the ball if the Nationals — who are currently 42–43 but only four games back in the NL East — decide to sell. Scherzer, who can be a free agent after this season, has 10-and-5 rights that allow him to turn down any trade, and agent Scott Boras recently suggested that the 36-year-old righty will only consent to a deal if an agreement for a contract extension is in place. Other starters who could be available include the Pirates’ Tyler Anderson, the Royals’ Danny Duffy, the Rangers’ Kyle Gibson, the Rockies’ Jon Gray, and the Twins’ Michael Pineda and/or José Berríos. The Dodgers’ farm system, which has been hit hard by so many recent graduations, lacks the high-ceiling blue-chippers of yesteryear but still has desirable prospects, with catcher Keibert Ruiz a potential centerpiece for a major deal.

It’s clear that the Dodgers need rotation help, but even if they get a read on the severity of Kershaw’s injury and the status of Bauer’s availability in the next several days, they’ll likely have to patch things internally for most of the next three weeks or significantly overpay in acquiring outside help, as potential trading partners will look to maximize their leverage as the clock runs down. In other words, we’re about to see just how deep the Dodgers really are.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

Teams like the Dodgers don’t usually identify the upgrades and go for them. They figure out what prospects are on the 40-man bubble and trade them for whatever they can get. So guys like Zak Reks and DJ Peters are available, but the more interesting guys (to other teams) are the ones who aren’t in AAA and who will be Rule 5 eligible this winter. At the higher end that’s guys like Jacob Amaya and at the lower end it’s guys like Robinson Ortiz, Jorbit Vivas, and James Outman.

Unclear exactly who is selling at this point, but that could get you a guy to eat some innings. Maybe Kwang Hyun-Kim.

Smiling Politely
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

This doesn’t seem accurate to me. Each of the past few years, they’ve identified clear needs and traded for stars (Darvish, Machado) before signing one long term (Betts). It wouldn’t at all shock me to see them trade for someone like Means, or flip Ruiz and others for Berrios, work on a 3 way trade with the ChiSox (who could use a catcher, I think), etc.

1 year ago

Betts is the exception. Everyone else was deemed expendable.

Smiling Politely
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

They’ve kept Jansen, extended Muncy, retained Turner, and I don’t see Kershaw going anywhere. They kept Barnes because Kershaw wanted him. Machado and Darvish were rentals to fill in for injuries and impending FA (which made them easier trade targets), so it’s hard to understand why that’s a sign of unwillingness, considering that those situations warranted temp fixes. This one might be bigger (or not, depending on how Gonsolin and Kershaw do over the next 2 weeks).

But for now, with multiple catching prospects to deal and some expiring contracts to shove off as well, they have some interesting options.