Clayton Kershaw could be a human sundial, casting his shadow predictably over the hours of each day with each element of his preparation. The max-effort sprints in the outfield, the bullpen sessions, the timed exit from the clubhouse to pitch, all the pieces of his relentless devotion to his work. Kershaw dominates his schedule in the way he dominates hitters, and longtime teammates believe that regimen is a powerful weapon for a pitcher who will finish his career regarded as one of the best ever, and maybe the best.
Kershaw will be in a position of command and control again this fall, as he steers through what might turn out to be the last long-term contractual situation in his playing career. Kershaw has two years remaining on his current deal, for 2019 and 2020, for about $35 million annually. But he also has the right to opt out of his contract -- leverage that he could use to try to negotiate a longer-term deal, or to move, if he has an alternate destination in mind.
If he does opt out of the contract, however, there are also factors out of his control that could come into play. Because of his stature in the game and perhaps in the upcoming free-agent market, rival executives and agents are increasingly speculating about his future.
Factor No. 1: His health. Kershaw and the Dodgers do not provide a lot of detail about the injuries that have forced him to the disabled list in recent years, which is entirely his prerogative (and theirs, but mostly his). That will leave the rest of the industry to quilt the scraps of information and speculate, unless he opts out of his contract and his medical records are released to teams.
Given Kershaw's unusual and powerful delivery, size and work intensity, rival officials wonder about -- in no particular order -- his back, his right hip and his left shoulder. When he landed on the disabled list recently with what was termed by the team as left biceps tendinitis, front-office types mused over that diagnosis and tried to decipher its meaning, even as he has been playing catch and sounding relatively hopeful in his comments to reporters.
"If he developed a shoulder issue, then opting out might not be the best thing," an evaluator with another team said.
A short stint on the disabled list and another strong year on the mound will deflect concerns.
Factor No. 2: What does Kershaw want? Does he want to remain with the Dodgers for the rest of his career, all things being equal, in the way that Justin Turner did? Would he prefer to go back to his native Texas to pitch his last years, and be closer to family? Or does he have some other team or circumstance that's preferable -- as with Kevin Durant, who joined a championship team in Golden State to play with other champions?
Even if Kershaw knows the answer to that question now, it would behoove him to keep that to himself, to maintain the mystery and as much leverage as possible.
Factor No. 3: Behind closed doors, what do the Dodgers want? What is their evaluation of Kershaw's medical information, whatever that is? What do they see in him as a pitcher, and if he opts out, how do they assess his value and the attached risk through a long-term deal?
As the Dodgers worked to get a handle on a payroll spiraling upward in recent winters, they held the line on Zack Greinke's negotiations -- and saw him instead sign with the Diamondbacks for an extra year, and a lot more money. L.A. kept Turner, Kenley Jansen and Rich Hill on multiyear deals, but for four-, five- and three-year contracts.
Factor No. 4: How much is legacy worth? There have been plenty of instances in which a team extended itself to retain an aging star, with Tom Brady perhaps being the best current example. There also have been teams that said no to Hall of Fame-caliber players -- the Packers to Brett Favre, the Cardinals to Albert Pujols.
In a perfect world in which money is not a factor and everybody lives happily ever after, the star stays, retires in harmony with his employers and comes back every year to wave to the crowds who once cheered his or her feats. But in this complicated world, that doesn't always happen.
Kershaw is an eventual heir to the Sandy Koufax legacy, but how much will the Dodgers pay for that? Casey Close, Kershaw's agent, also represented Derek Jeter, and when Jeter's 10-year contract expired and Close proposed a pricey extension worth north of $100 million, Yankees GM Brian Cashman encouraged Close and Jeter to test the market -- because he didn't believe an older shortstop had that sort of value. In the end, legacy meant something to Jeter -- who made it clear he had no intention of leaving -- and to Hal Steinbrenner, who agreed to pay Jeter a salary higher than his production would have gleaned on the open market.
Factor No. 5: What level of responsibility will Kershaw feel to chase the biggest dollars, on behalf of the players' association? It has been a rough couple of years for the union, with a lot of veterans seemingly losing market leverage because of supply-and-demand issues, and because of the increasing wariness among teams to invest in players over 30. Kershaw just turned 30, and because he has been the best at his position and because of his star power he might have the power to push salary ceilings.
Kershaw is known as an excellent teammate, and even though I believe he cares little to nothing about money and wealth beyond the potential for charity, he is certainly aware of his stature in the game, and his importance to peers.
Factor No. 6: How much longer does he want to pitch? Father Time steals the game from even the greatest eventually, and some players seem lost in retirement. This will not be an issue for Kershaw, who has a great circle of friends, as well as family; he will never be bored. My guess is that whenever Kershaw stops enjoying baseball, he'll have no problem walking away and moving on to the next phase of his life.
Factor No. 7: What do other teams see in Kershaw, and what do they want? This is important because if Kershaw opts out of his deal, Close might need the interest of other teams to push any negotiation.
For example, if Kershaw actually seriously considered going to the Rangers, would the Rangers want to buy in at a premium price? They're going through a stretch of rebuilding now, and are scheduled to move into a new ballpark in 2020. Would Kershaw's presence help to fill the seats? Or will the seats be mostly filled in the early years even without Kershaw? The Rangers didn't re-sign Yu Darvish, and when Jake Arrieta waited and waited through the winter, Texas didn't jump in and take him off the board. Was that part of a larger plan for gradual rebuilding? Does Kershaw fit the Rangers' timeline? How wary would they be of investing lots of money in what might be the downslope of his career? Or do they view the hiring of a hometown kid who became a legend as the perfect sales pitch?
Factor No. 8: What does Dodgers ownership want? Because decisions of this significance are usually not made by somebody working in baseball ops. Rather, it's the guys whose value is typically measured in a word that starts with a "b."
He has pitched more than 2,000 innings, in the regular season and postseason combined, won almost 70 percent of his decisions and finished in the top three in the National League Cy Young voting in six of the past seven seasons. And it might be that the small sample size of the next 4½ months could matter for Clayton Kershaw, if he opts out of his contract.
News from around the majors
Josh Donaldson has won an MVP for the Blue Jays and is tremendously popular in Toronto -- and yet a midseason trade might be welcomed by the fan base because it would probably spur the promotion of superstar third-base prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is dominating in Double-A. The son of the longtime Expos and Angels slugger is 19 years old and the youngest player in the Eastern League, but it seems possible that Guerrero could be called to the big leagues within days of his father's induction into the Hall of Fame near the end of July. Vladimir Jr. teased the Toronto fan base with his talent in some late-spring exhibition games in Montreal, ending one with a walk-off that might turn out to be the highlight of the Jays' season, and the Jays' front office could be in the incredibly unique (and enviable) position of generating more excitement than backlash by the trade of an established star.
The Blue Jays also have the option of retaining Donaldson through the season, which is not entirely out of the question because the market for the slugger might be limited, shaped over the next 10 weeks by injuries. Most of the contending teams already have third basemen -- the Cubs with Kris Bryant, the Astros with Alex Bregman, the Dodgers with Justin Turner, the Nationals with Anthony Rendon, etc. The Cardinals and Braves could be possible options, as well, if they are willing to pay the price, but keep in mind that Manny Machado and Mike Moustakas will be available, as well, and could affect any effort by the Jays to extract high return for Donaldson.
But Donaldson is regarded as a pure hitter, and perceived to be someone who can hit good pitching, so it might be that a club with flexibility at first base and/or DH might consider him, as well.
• Bryce Harper loves to hit, but in April opposing pitchers constantly worked around him. He drew 37 walks, and had an on-base percentage of .467. But frustration might have overcome Harper's patience, because he has been swinging more and walking a lot less. He has only two walks in May, with his batting average sinking to .228. He and the Nationals face the Diamondbacks on Sunday Night Baseball.
• Arizona's A.J. Pollock is poised to be the No. 2 free-agent outfielder behind Harper, after his strong start to this season. After J.D. Martinez joined the Diamondbacks last year, Pollock learned that Martinez and his hitting coach would drive 45 minutes each way to go to an indoor cage to do morning work together. So Pollock -- who had just installed an indoor cage at his home -- suggested that Martinez use his facility, to shorten his travel. What Pollock learned is that Martinez would wake, eat and then hit in the morning, arriving sometime in the 11:30 a.m. range and staying for an hour or so, before going to the ballpark and hitting more, before that night's game. And Martinez would sometimes hit after games, as he monitored his own mechanics.
"He was a machine," Pollock recalled. "He hit more than anyone I've ever seen."
Naturally Pollock would join in the conversations at the cage in his home, and found that Martinez's words reinforced some of what Pollock had heard before. Let the ball get deep in the strike zone; be directional with your swing, and work to take the ball through the middle of the field. "It was a great tool for me, a great recalibration," Pollock said.
And like Mookie Betts and other hitters in recent years, Pollock has been more aggressive, looking to do damage. He ranks among the NL leaders in home runs and slugging percentage.
• The Angels and Astros are running neck-and-neck at the top of the AL West, but with very different pitching staffs. Houston's rotation of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. leads the majors in ERA by more than half a run. The Angels, on the other hand, have been devastated by rotation injuries -- and have required over 50 percent more innings out of their relievers than the Astros.
• Aaron Judge is six inches taller than Joey Votto, outweighs him by 60 pounds, and is known for his tape-measure home runs rather than his intellectual study of hitting. But Judge is from the Ted Williams/Votto school of precise plate discipline, with an exceptional understanding of the strike zone. Judge drew 32 walks in 38 games, and he appears to be a cinch to draw over 100 walks again -- and would become the first player in the modern era to draw 100-plus walks in his rookie season and the season that followed.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Friday: Karl Ravech on the energy in new Yankee Stadium, Shohei Ohtani's ability to adjust and the ridiculous David Price/Fortnite storyline; Jessica Mendoza on the improvement of A.J. Pollock; and Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post on Bryce Harper, and the Nationals' injuries.
Thursday: Keith Hernandez on his new book, the Mets' lineup gaffe and Matt Harvey; Bruce Bochy on Tony Gwynn, his favorite World Series ring and Madison Bumgarner; Sarah Langs and The Numbers Game; Keith Law on the Yankees-Red Sox series, and the lineup issue.
Wednesday: Boog Sciambi on James Paxton's no-hitter, the Diamondbacks' surge at the beginning of this season and Harvey's new landing spot; the Boston Globe's Alex Speier on the Red Sox and Yankees, and Price's arm trouble; Paul Hembekides with an appreciation for Tony Gwynn.
Tuesday: Karl Ravech's extended conversation with Kerry Wood about his 20-strikeout game; Jerry Crasnick on Shohei Ohtani; Sarah Langs' Numbers Game; and a touching tribute to Gretchen Piscotty and her family, from Jen Lada.
Plus a special Call To The Legends with longtime player and manager Davey Johnson, who tells stories about Sandy Koufax, Bryce Harper, Cal Ripken et al.
And today will be better than yesterday.