Clayton Kershaw rejoins Dodgers eyeing second-half return

The way Clayton Kershaw sees it, he has faced few truly “big decisions” in his life.

“I got drafted by the Dodgers, married the same girl from high school,” the veteran pitcher and future Hall of Famer said Thursday. “I didn’t have many decisions to make along the way.”

This past winter, however, was different.

Kershaw entered free agency for a third straight offseason, once again picking between a return to the Dodgers or a move to his hometown Texas Rangers. But this time, the 35-year-old left-hander also had to consider retirement more seriously than ever before, knowing that in order to extend his 16-year playing career, he would have to undergo his first surgical procedure to repair injuries to ligaments and the capsule in his left shoulder.

“That was kind of a hard road to go down,” Kershaw said. “This was really the first offseason where I had some choices to make, and it wasn’t easy.”

More difficult, sure. But the outcome, once again, was the same.

In November, Kershaw announced he had surgery and intended to keep playing. Then, this week, he and the Dodgers agreed on a one-year contract with a player option for 2025, a deal that was finalized Thursday after Kershaw took a physical at the club’s spring training complex in Arizona.

“Once I decided to come back, everybody has been great,” Kershaw said, surrounded by dozens of reporters — many there to capture a first look at Shohei Ohtani with the team — at Camelback Ranch.

“I felt wanted, even though I’m kind of damaged goods right now,” Kershaw added. “It was a good feeling.”

Kershaw won’t be back on the mound anytime soon. He is only two weeks into his post-procedure throwing program. He hasn’t yet revealed a timeline for his recovery. And, while he remains confident in returning to the rotation this season, it might be “July-ish” or “August-ish,” he said.

The extra time off won’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Kershaw noted there is more “freedom” in not having to immediately ramp up to be ready for opening day. He and his family also will get to spend extra time back home in Texas during his rehab, with Kershaw planning to spend part of the spring there as well as most of the Dodgers’ early road trips (he still plans to be in L.A. during homestands).

Once Kershaw returns, “it’s just gonna be a sprint,” he acknowledged.

But after 16 seasons, 422 starts and 2,944 strikeouts — leaving him just 56 shy of MLB’s 3,000-strikeout club — it’s a change of pace he’s looking forward to.

“There’s a little bit of comfort in that, honestly,” he said. “But overall, I’m excited to be here and get ready for a season.”

There was a time when it looked like Kershaw’s last season was behind him.

Though he posted strong numbers last year (13-5 record with a 2.46 ERA), it was clear his shoulder was not right and he didn’t have his best stuff during the second half of the campaign.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton sits on the bench after being pulled in the first inning against the Diamondbacks on Oct. 7, 2023.

Clayton Kershaw hangs his head in the dugout after giving up six runs against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the 2023 National League Division Series.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Then, when he imploded in a six-run, one-inning start against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, many speculated it might have been his last chapter at Chavez Ravine.

“The way it ended, especially for our team and for me personally, wasn’t fun at all,” Kershaw conceded. “A lot of doubts. A lot of things.”

From that ending, though, Kershaw found renewed motivation.

Even with surgery looming, he elected to push forward for a 17th season. And even with the Rangers beckoning — fresh off a World Series title, no less — he opted to remain with the only club he’s ever known.

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

Asked whether he expected to still pitch like his old self, or need to concede that he might not be able to, the former NL most valuable player and three-time Cy Young Award winner cracked a sly grin.

“I expect to be good,” he said. “I don’t know what [pitch like] ‘you’ means anymore. But I expect to be good. I’ve said it before, I don’t want to be average. I don’t wanna just pitch to pitch. I wanna be good. I wanna contribute and be part of this. So yeah, my expectations are, no concessions.”

That big decision, Kershaw made long ago. The idea of pitching past the point he stops being productive never has appealed to him.

That’s why, even as he seriously considered walking away from the game, he never felt ready for retirement.

Whenever he takes the mound again, he expects to get outs, eat innings, win games.

And when that moment arrives, it’ll be with the same team he’s been doing itwith for the better part of the last two decades.

“I feel really good about it now,” Kershaw said of his decision. “Thankful I got the surgery. Thankful I’m back here. I’m excited to be a part of it.”