Clayton Kershaw remains the constant for the Dodgers, who have changed so much

PHOENIX — Clayton Kershaw was months away from his major-league debut when the Los Angeles Dodgers made their big move. The franchise sought credibility, wanted to be taken seriously, and Joe Torre and his four World Series rings from managing the Yankees were the answer. The club shot high that winter, talking to the Marlins about their young infielder, Miguel Cabrera, before landing the big name they coveted: Andruw Jones, who wouldn’t see the end of his deal. By week’s end, they’d landed Japanese right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, too.

That counted as a splash back then, as did the deal that landed Manny Ramirez in Los Angeles at that summer’s deadline, four days after Kershaw notched his first career victory.

Sixteen years later, Kershaw has more wins (210) than everyone in franchise history except Don Sutton (233). And if Kershaw witnessed Mannywood back then, what is he returning to now?

At once, he is an icon and a bridge, the common thread between generations and ownership groups and fortunes. Kershaw can recite tales of when they “were that team” early in his tenure to the darkness of the McCourt days when the franchise was being bickered about in bankruptcy court. Kershaw knows the organization and all its grooves as well as anyone. Now, he is the emotional fabric tying together baseball’s first billion-dollar offseason.

This is a different era for this organization’s generational pitcher. The man who once shared a rotation with the likes of Derek Lowe and Greg Maddux will now get to do so with the likes of Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow. And, if Kershaw exercises his player option for 2025, he could end up in a rotation with Shohei Ohtani.

“This offseason has been pretty amazing to watch, honestly,” Kershaw said Thursday ahead of what might be the highest-anticipated season the franchise has had since moving to Los Angeles. The team’s pitchers and catchers report Friday. “There’s definitely a part of me that wanted to be a part of that. Part of this team. Winning an offseason doesn’t mean anything, but it’s a pretty good clubhouse of guys. The talent is probably the best I’ve ever been a part of. I’m hopeful that I can be a part of it, too.”

This star-studded club still has its connective tissue, even if Kershaw himself may not be that big a presence as things get underway. After undergoing his physical to make his deal official in Arizona on Thursday, he left to return home to Texas as he rehabilitates from the first major procedure of his career. The three-time Cy Young Award winner expects to pop back to Camelback Ranch in early March and be around the club for homestands at Dodger Stadium as he continues his recovery.

The left-hander said he is hopeful he can return by “July-ish, August-ish” after undergoing surgery in November to repair the capsule and glenohumeral ligaments in his pitching shoulder, by which time the Dodgers will be hurtling toward familiar territory. Kershaw understands well that this club will be remembered as much as anything for October, and all it represents.

In opting for the familiarity of the only club he’s ever known, he will have the chance at more milestones along the way. Kershaw is 56 strikeouts shy of 3,000, a mark only 19 other men have accomplished. At 36, he has shown he can still contribute when healthy, running a 2.46 ERA in 24 starts last season despite his shoulder (and with it, his velocity and command) being compromised, navigating those treacherous waters before the worst start of his career in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

He called his performance that night “embarrassing” as the Arizona Diamondbacks pounced on him before the silent Dodger Stadium fans were even settled in their seats. Kershaw’s return ensures that it won’t be the final image of himself for a franchise that looks a lot different than it did when he debuted at 20. That, he said, finalized a decision to hold off on retirement.

“Didn’t want to go out that way,” Kershaw said. “I think that was ultimately how I came to it.”

He is not a patient man, as he’s learned during this process. Nor is he the best communicator. But as he and his wife, Ellen, weighed their annual decision — whether to keep playing and, if so, whether it would be in Los Angeles or home in Texas — he found himself grappling with something.

“I really never made a big decision in my life,” he said. “I got drafted by the Dodgers. I married the same girl from high school. I didn’t have many decisions to make along the way. This was really kind of the first offseason where I had some choices to make and it wasn’t easy.”

Ultimately, he said, it took time. The Dodgers expressed their interest in a reunion throughout the process, well before the club blew the doors off the offseason with their splurge to sign Ohtani, Yamamoto, Glasnow and others for a combined $1.2 billion. Kershaw, of course, has never been a typical free agent.

And the difficult choice he made is still to be here, tied to this place.

(Photo of Clayton Kershaw from Game 1 of the 2023 NLDS: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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