With Kershaw’s Surgery and Lynn’s Declined Option, the Dodgers Rotation Becomes Even Thinner

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers provided some clarity with regards to their decimated rotation on Friday, though perhaps not in the most reassuring manner. First, the team reportedly declined Lance Lynn’s $18 million option, and then Clayton Kershaw announced via Instagram that he had undergone shoulder surgery that morning, with hopes of a return to play “at some point next summer.” As if that didn’t raise enough questions, the three-time Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer did nothing to tip his hand regarding whether he’d seek a return to the Dodgers.

When we last saw the 35-year-old Kershaw in action, he was leaving the mound after retiring just one of the eight Diamondbacks he faced in the Division Series opener. Because the Dodgers were swept in the best-of-five series, he didn’t get a chance to take another turn, though manager Dave Roberts had planned to send him out for Game 4 had the team extended the series. Asked in the immediate aftermath of the team’s elimination what would come next for him, Kershaw responded cryptically, saying, “I don’t know how to answer that right now.”

Kershaw’s inability to articulate his plans at the time was understandable, in part because for the third year in a row he was headed towards free agency, with a chance to leave the only organization he’s known since being drafted out of Highland Park High School in Dallas in 2006. In the past two winters, he had given some consideration to pitching closer to home with the Rangers, but chose to return to the Dodgers after the 2021 season, signing a one-year, $17 million contract after the lockout ended in March ’22, and then re-upping for one year and $20 million last December. Though he missed the 2021 postseason due to forearm discomfort, Kershaw didn’t have any health-related question marks hanging over his head by the time he re-signed either of those deals. This time, he’s in uncharted territory.

Kershaw pitched to a 2.46 ERA in 131.2 innings this year and made his 10th NL All-Star team, but before he could pitch in the All-Star Game, he landed on the injured list with left shoulder soreness and missed six weeks. When he returned, he threw just 36.1 innings in eight post-injury starts, and throughout that run, both the pitcher and the team tiptoed around the subject of what was actually going on in his dinged wing. “He’s going to keep going until he can’t,” said Roberts in a typical update, this one after a rough September 5 start in which Kershaw walked five and allowed three runs in five innings against the Marlins. “I think the hope is he’s going to continue to feel better, but given where he’s at physically, it’s hard to say that’s going to happen.”

Kershaw’s shoulder issue compromised both his velocity and his command. He lost 2.7 mph on his monthly average four-seam fastball velocity from June (91.3 mph) to September (88.6), and by the pitch-modeling metrics, the quality of his stuff was way, way down:

Clayton Kershaw via Stuff+ and PitchingBot
Stuff+ Stf+ FA Stf+ SL Stf+ CU Stuff+ Location+ Pitching+
2022 105 115 89 106 104 106
2023 Pre-Injury 102 118 95 108 102 104
2023 Post-Injury 79 93 90 83 94 93
PitchingBot botOvr FA botOvr SL botOvr CU botStf botCmd botOvr
2022 58 57 50 51 62 57
2023 Pre-Injury 52 56 49 47 57 53
2023 Post-Injury 44 34 39 38 44 34
Stuff+ scores are normalized to an average of 100, PitchingBot scores are normalized to a 20–80 scouting scale.

Unsurprisingly, Kershaw’s peripherals suffered, with his strikeout rate falling off, his walk rate rising, and his home run rate soaring. Somehow, despite all of that as well as much harder contact, his ERA actually dropped:

Clayton Kershaw 2023 Pre- and Post-Injury
Split IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 Barrel% ERA xERA FIP
2023 Pre-Injury 95.1 27.7% 6.3% 21.4% 1.13 7.7% 2.55 3.55 3.51
2023 Post-Injury 36.1 22.2% 11.1% 11.1% 1.73 12.6% 2.23 4.61 5.40
Total 131.2 26.2% 7.6% 18.5% 1.30 9.0% 2.46 3.82 4.03

Even so, Kershaw finished with career worsts in FIP, xERA, and barrel rate, with his walk rate his highest since 2010. Now at least we have some inkling why. In his Instagram post, Kershaw said the surgery, done by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, was to repair the glenohumeral ligaments and capsule of his left shoulder:

The three glenohumeral ligaments (superior, middle, and inferior) connect the scapula to the humerus. Effectively, they stabilize the ball of the upper arm bone within the socket of the shoulder blade. The capsule surrounds the joint and is reinforced by the rotator cuff muscles.

Though he has spent time on the injured list in each of the past eight seasons — more often for lower back woes than for arm problems — this is the first time in Kershaw’s professional career that he’s undergone surgery. As best we can tell from the minimal details offered, the surgery doesn’t seem to be directly related to his rotator cuff or labrum; such surgeries might put him out of action for an entire season. Capsule surgery is no small matter, however, so it’s hardly out of the question that he could be sidelined for a full season as well, if there are setbacks in his rehab. The good news is that doesn’t seem to be the baseline assumption.

That said, a return to All-Star form shouldn’t be the baseline assumption, either. Whether it’s for the Dodgers, who have exactly one starter who threw more than 70 innings for them in 2023 (Bobby Miller) returning for ’24, or another team, it’s not a given that Kershaw could approximate the 127 innings he’s averaged over the past three seasons, let alone the 2.75 ERA, 3.21 FIP, or 3.2 WAR. Thus it may make more sense for the team signing him to think in terms of a two-year deal with some bells and whistles — incentives, escalators, options — given so many unknowns. It’s also possible that Kershaw could wait until he’s further along in his rehab, or at least has deliberated longer, before committing to a team.

As for the possibility of his joining the Rangers — who were in a much different place during their previous flirtations with Kershaw than they are now — they’re lined up to spend a pretty penny on starting pitching, though it’s a rotation with its share of question marks. They’re “only” paying $22.5 million of Max Scherzer’s $43.3 million salary, with the Mets picking up the rest, but he’s heading into his age-39 season, has totaled just 50 starts in the past two seasons, and was a shaky proposition during this past postseason. The team is also paying Jacob deGrom $40 million as he rehabs from his second Tommy John surgery, plus $16 million for Nathan Eovaldi, and $13 million apiece for Jon Gray and Andrew Heaney. The Rangers will likely let Martín Pérez walk in free agency; he accepted a $19.65 million qualifying offer after his first All-Star season last year, but regressed considerably and wound up in the bullpen after the trade deadline. Midseason acquisition Jordan Montgomery is a free agent as well, and is likely to land a big raise from the $10 million he made in 2023.

Via RosterResource, the Rangers’ payroll is at $219.1 million for Competitive Balance Tax purposes, leaving them less than $18 million below the first tax threshold. If Kershaw wants to pitch for them, surely they’ll find a way to make the deal work, just as the Dodgers will. Los Angeles “only” has $159.3 million committed for tax purposes but a much longer history of paying the CBT; the team was barely under the second threshold of $253 million in 2023.

Beyond the contract stuff, the injury has stalled Kershaw’s pursuit of a major milestone, probably the last one within his reach. He’s 56 strikeouts away from becoming the 20th pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts, and would be just the fourth lefty to attain that mark after Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, and CC Sabathia. Former teammate Zack Greinke is 21 strikeouts away from 3,000, and could beat Kershaw to the milestone if he decides to pitch in 2024; both would join Scherzer and Justin Verlander among the active pitchers at that plateau, though even if they wind up falling short, it won’t affect their eventual election into the Hall of Fame, almost certainly on the first ballot.

Ultimately, Kershaw will be wearing a Dodgers cap on his plaque, but he’ll have to decide whether he wants to be the rare Hall of Famer to have spent his entire career with one team. Only six Hall of Fame hurlers whose careers started after World War II spent their careers with just one team, two of them with the Dodgers, namely Sandy Koufax (1955–66) and Don Drysdale (1956-69); the others are Whitey Ford (Yankees 1950–57), Bob Gibson (Cardinals 1959–75), Jim Palmer (Orioles 1965–84), and Mariano Rivera (Yankees 1995–2013).

As for Lynn, who was an All-Star as recently as 2021 and a reliable, well-traveled workhorse for years before that, the news of his option being declined at the end of his two-year, $38 million deal hardly comes as a shock. The 36-year-old righty was lit for a 6.47 ERA and 5.19 IP in 119.2 innings with the White Sox before being traded to the Dodgers as part of a five-player deal on July 28. He was the only rotation upgrade the team acquired ahead of the deadline, a puzzling decision given that Kershaw was on the injured list alongside Walker Buehler, who was rehabbing from a second Tommy John surgery, and Dustin May, who had undergone season-ending surgery to repair his flexor tendon and revise his previous Tommy John surgery.

With a reconfigured arsenal — more four-seamers and curves, fewer cutters — Lynn found quick success after the trade, allowing just five runs in 25 innings across his first four starts. Soon, however, the mix reverted to something closer to what it had been on the South Side, and so did the results; he had a 6.23 ERA and 7.59 FIP over his last seven starts, and with the exception of his ERA, his key numbers wound up worse post-trade:

Lance Lynn 2023 Pre- and Post-Trade
Split IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 Barrel% ERA xERA FIP
White Sox 119.2 26.9% 8.4% 18.5% 2.16 10.9% 6.47 4.86 5.19
Dodgers 64 17.2% 8.1% 9.2% 2.11 9.4% 4.36 4.90 6.16
Total 183.2 23.6% 8.3% 15.3% 2.25 10.4% 5.73 4.86 5.53

Lynn’s home run rate not only led all ERA qualifiers, it was the second-highest of any full-season AL/NL qualifier in history, behind only Jose Lima (2.20 per nine for the 2000 Astros). Lynn’s 44 homers allowed was the most by any pitcher in 12 years, and tied for the sixth-highest single-season total:

Most Home Runs Allowed in a Season
Pitcher Team Season IP HR HR/9
Bert Blyleven MIN 1986 271.2 50 1.66
Jose Lima HOU 2000 196.1 48 2.20
Robin Roberts PHI 1956 297.1 46 1.39
Bert Blyleven MIN 1987 267.0 46 1.55
Bronson Arroyo CIN 2011 199.0 46 2.08
Jamie Moyer SEA 2004 202.0 44 1.96
Lance Lynn CHW/LAD 2023 183.2 44 2.16
Pedro Ramos WAS 1957 231.0 43 1.68
Eric Milton PHI 2004 201.0 43 1.93
Denny McLain DET 1966 264.1 42 1.43

Oy. And all of that was before Lynn allowed four solo homers in the third inning of Game 3 of the NLDS, the coup de grâce for the Dodgers’ season. As you might imagine, ZiPS is pretty wary of the big righty’s future. Here’s the projection from Dan Szymborski:

ZiPS Projection (Prelim) – Lance Lynn
2024 8 9 4.60 4.30 24 24 137 135 22 46 135 90 1.2
2025 6 9 5.01 4.63 21 21 115 121 21 44 109 83 0.4
2026 5 8 5.55 4.97 18 18 97.3 109 20 42 88 75 -0.2

The ZiPS contract recommendation for that is a one-year, $6.8 million deal, a bit over one-third the value of the option the Dodgers declined. The move doesn’t rule out the possibility that they re-sign Lynn for a lower salary — his ability to eat innings is worth something, as is the possibility that the Dodgers could coax a better performance out of him with a full season to work with him. But after this year’s Noah Syndergaard debacle, the team might be seeking more certainty and a higher ceiling.

Neither of Friday’s moves entirely rule out Kershaw or Lynn pitching for the Dodgers in 2024, and at this stage, the latter is something of an afterthought. The real intrigue will be what Kershaw decides and when he returns, and it’s likely to be awhile before we have answers to both of those questions.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 months ago

An editorial note: Whitey Ford pitched until 1967, as opposed to 1957 as noted in the article above.

3 months ago
Reply to  ajake57

He wouldn’t have even been eligible for the Hall of Fame if he truly only had an 8-year long career.

Last edited 3 months ago by Lanidrac
3 months ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I was shocked that he got in with such a short career, thanks for the correction