Clayton Kershaw's Back Injury Casts Huge Question Mark over Dodgers' Season

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJuly 1, 2016

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw stands in the dugout before a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Saturday, June 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The hottest team in baseball is spending less than $14 million on a starting rotation that might turn Cleveland into the city of champions. The richest team in baseball has more than $36 million tied up in starting pitchers who aren’t healthy enough to pitch.

Uh, make that more than $70 million, because the Los Angeles Dodgers added Clayton Kershaw to their hefty disabled list Thursday.

Remember when the Dodgers’ problem was they didn’t have a good enough rotation behind Kershaw? Well, now they don’t have a good enough rotation at all, at least until Kershaw returns from the back injury that has sent him to the 15-day DL.

The Dodgers can’t, or won’t, say when that will be. As a result, we can't, or won't, say whether the Dodgers have any chance to keep this season from falling apart.

Los Angeles did get a good start from Kenta Maeda on Thursday afternoon in Milwaukee, and it got an 8-1 win over the Brewers that gave it a 44-37 record. If the season ended now, the Dodgers would be in the playoffs as a wild-card team.

Good thing for them the season doesn't end now, because if the National League Wild Card Game were Friday night, they wouldn't have Kershaw to pitch in it.

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They'd have Bud Norris, the 31-year-old right-hander they announced they acquired Thursday from the Atlanta Braves, where he was in and out and back in the rotation. Norris has a 2.15 ERA in five starts this month, with wins over both the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets, but it's hard to forget his 8.74 ERA in five starts in April.

He's no Kershaw, but who is? Not Maeda, although Orel Hershiser said on Dodgers television that the Japanese rookie has been "impersonating an ace" lately. Not anyone in the rest of the pieced-together Dodgers rotation, which for now includes Scott Kazmir, Julio Urias and Brock Stewart after Maeda and Norris.

The "for now" is key, because both Brandon McCarthy (coming back from Tommy John surgery) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (coming back from shoulder surgery) are pitching on minor league rehabilitation assignments. Neither of them is Kershaw, either, but at least they've pitched in the big leagues before.

Counting Norris, the Dodgers have had 10 starting pitchers this season—only the Cincinnati Reds and Oakland A's have used more—and four of them made their major league debut in 2016.

That's part of the reason that while the Dodgers are 14-2 when Kershaw starts, they're 30-35 when he doesn't.

The without-Kershaw record was a problem before Thursday, when we were all thinking Kershaw was going to keep starting every fifth day. Besides being the best pitcher in baseball, the Dodger ace has been remarkably durable, averaging 32 starts and 215 innings in the seven seasons before this one.

He leads the major leagues this year with 121 innings, including six on Sunday in Pittsburgh. He apparently complained of discomfort Monday, flew home Wednesday and was diagnosed with what the Dodgers called a "mild disc herniation" in his lower back, per Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times. The team said Kershaw received an epidural injection for pain relief.

What it didn't say was when he'll pitch again. Perhaps it honestly doesn't know. Perhaps it'd rather not even think about it.

Bud Norris pitched well for the Braves in June, but now he has the tough task of filling in for Kershaw.
Bud Norris pitched well for the Braves in June, but now he has the tough task of filling in for Kershaw.John Bazemore/Associated Press

"How his body responds to the epidural, that's the most telling," manager Dave Roberts told reporters, including McCullough. "I don't know how it's going to be. I don't know. I'm hopeful. But I can't say either way [whether this will be 15 days or longer]."

The Dodgers, for all their money, wouldn't spend enough of it to keep Zack Greinke from leaving for the Arizona Diamondbacks last winter. For all their prospects, they wouldn't part with enough of them to add Cole Hamels (or any of the top rental pitchers) last July.

They have what they have, and if they make it through whatever time Kershaw misses without sinking in the standings, it would be a major accomplishment—and something of a surprise.

As catcher A.J. Ellis told McCullough after the Kershaw news came out, "That's probably why he hurt his back, he's been carrying us so long."

Kershaw was always the Dodgers' guarantee against a long losing streak. Streaks are usually built on starting pitching, although few teams have ever done that as successfully as the Indians have over the last two weeks.

According to a stat cited on the Indians' TV broadcast Thursday night, they were the first team since the 1916 New York Giants to win 12 straight games while never allowing more than three earned runs. They did it again for number 13 Thursday, with Carlos Carrasco striking out 14 in a 4-1 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Indians have a five-man rotation that right now qualifies as baseball's best, but they don't have a Kershaw.

For at least the next two weeks, the Dodgers don't have one, either.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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