The conventional wisdom on Clayton Kershaw is pretty straightforward. The future Hall of Famer will either re-sign with the Dodgers or join his hometown Rangers.
Author's Note: Each day this week, we'll advocate for the Red Sox to consider one of the top remaining free agents on the market in a feature called, "Making the Case." Today's installment: Clayton Kershaw. Previously, we dissected Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman.
But conventional wisdom, especially surrounding veteran pitchers, has been wrong before. Red Sox fans need no reminder of their shock when ace Roger Clemens signed with the Blue Jays in 1996, spurning the Yankees, among others. Kershaw is the same age now that Clemens was then, heading into his age-34 season.
It would most definitely qualify as a longshot, since Kershaw spends his offseason in Dallas and is raising young children, but he'd actually fit the Chaim Bloom model in one important sense -- he's open to shorter-term contracts.
The risks associated with signing starting pitchers in their 30s are well-established. They frequently make bad investments thanks to injury and/or ineffectiveness, with six- and eight-year deals hamstringing franchises. David Price, anyone?
Kershaw, however, is coming off a three-year, $93 million deal with the Dodgers that saw him go 32-15 with a 3.06 ERA while making another All-Star team, the eighth of his career.
Because he has made eight trips to the injured list since 2016, and because elbow problems first interrupted and then ended his 2021 season, he's not looking at a long-term deal this winter. He has pitched more recently than Justin Verlander and Noah Syndergaard, who are both coming off Tommy John surgery, but he may be looking at one-year contracts like the ones they signed with the Astros and Angels for $21 million and $25 million, respectively.
Bloom has already established that one year with an option is his sweet spot for starters, and that might just fit Kershaw's window.
We'll address his health in a second, but on paper, the left-hander would give the Red Sox a third top-of-the-rotation option alongside Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi, though with more questions than either of them. Still only 33, Kershaw feels older because his career began in 2008 on a Dodgers team that included Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, and even a 42-year-old Greg Maddux.
He's actually younger than starters like Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, Corey Kluber, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. He's no longer the pitcher who won three Cy Young Awards and an MVP between 2011 and 2014, when he owned baseball's best slider and curveball, but when healthy he remains effective.
That's owed to an arsenal that's now vaguely reminiscent of former Red Sox closer Koji Uehara. Kershaw basically throws 90 mph fastballs, but his spin rate is elite, ranking in the top five percent. He produced tremendous results with it in 2020 before taking a step back last year, but he compensated by leaning on his slider nearly 50 percent of the time and holding opponents to a .198 average on that pitch. The slider is basically his version of Uehara's splitter.
He made 22 starts last year thanks to injuries, going 10-8 with a 3.55 ERA in 121.2 innings. It's worth noting that his ERA, which would've led the Red Sox starting staff, was actually the highest since his rookie year. His lifetime ERA of 2.49 leads active pitchers and ranks second only to Mariano Rivera in the last 100 years.
Now for those injuries. Kershaw missed basically three months with a forearm strain before returning in September. He left his final start with a recurrence of elbow pain and was shut down for the playoffs. He received a platelet-rich plasma injection and said he wouldn't need offseason surgery.
Kershaw hasn't made 30 starts in a season since 2015, and he's not signing anywhere without passing a physical. He's by no means an obvious choice, but on a short-term deal he's the kind of player who wouldn't disrupt any long-term payroll plans while possibly delivering elite performance.
If the Red Sox can spend $10 million on James Paxton while he recovers from Tommy John surgery, maybe they can find $20 million for the best pitcher of this generation.