Ranking the Top 7 Landing Spots for Clayton Kershaw in MLB Free Agency
When business resumes on the other side of Major League Baseball's lockout, one of the greatest pitchers in league history will still be looking for a contract.
Granted, Clayton Kershaw is not the same pitcher at 33 that he was during a heyday that saw him collect four league-wide ERA titles, three Cy Young Awards and an MVP. But amid a market for starting pitchers that was picked clean before the lockout, that he remains effective is good enough.
As for where the longtime Los Angeles Dodgers ace might land, we see seven teams that could make a run at Kershaw and ranked them according to how well he fits with each. There's also another possibility that, for reasons we'll get into, we left unranked.
First, let's start by sizing up the left-hander's value on the 2021-22 market.
What Is Kershaw's Value in Free Agency?
If you read that part about Kershaw being "one of" the greatest pitchers in MLB history and thought even that was underselling him, well, fair point.
Per his 155 ERA+, he's actually the greatest all-time among pitchers who've logged at least 2,400 innings in the majors. He was certainly at the height of his powers between 2011 and 2017, averaging 207 innings per season to go along with a 179 ERA+ and a 5.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Particularly to the extent that he finally won a World Series ring in 2020, the last four seasons haven't been entirely unkind to Kershaw. Yet his production has deteriorated, most notably in 2021. He pitched to a modest 115 ERA+ and made only 22 starts because of a bothersome forearm injury. He expects to be ready for spring training, but there's at least a little uncertainty there.
The Dodgers could have made Kershaw a qualifying offer worth $18.4 million, but they declined to do so. The official reasoning was that they didn't want "put him on that kind of clock when he wasn't ready for it." Unofficially, it could be because the club just didn't value him at $18.4 million for 2022.
It nonetheless wouldn't be surprising if Kershaw matched or even exceeded such a salary in what will likely be a one-year deal. Because in addition to his credentials and the thinness of the starting pitching market, he also has the benefit of not being tied to draft-pick compensation.
So, starting with one that would break Dodgers fans' hearts, let's discuss his possible suitors.
7. San Francisco Giants
Yes, we're going to seriously consider the possibility of Kershaw becoming a San Francisco Giant.
Oddly enough, the Dodgers' longest-running rivals actually can offer the lefty some familiarity. President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler both used to work for the Dodgers. As he has a 1.52 ERA in 26 career appearances there, Oracle Park might also appeal to Kershaw.
The Giants might also sell Kershaw on how they're doing things these days. They won 107 games in 2021 largely because they squeezed more than anyone expected out of veteran players. Perhaps there's a way they could also do so with Kershaw in 2022.
More simply, the Giants plain need another starter. They retained Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood and also added Alex Cobb in free agency, but none of them is the top-of-the-rotation type they lost when Kevin Gausman departed for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Of course, the sheer wrongness of this idea can't be ignored. And it might actually mean something to Kershaw himself, who may not want to subject Dodgers fans to seeing him in black and orange.
6. Toronto Blue Jays
Speaking of the Blue Jays, they're yet another hypothetical fit for Kershaw.
Like the Giants, they can offer Kershaw some familiarity in the sense that ace left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu and swingman right-hander Ross Stripling are former teammates of his. For what it's worth—and it might not be worth much, but still—Kershaw and Stripling have even podcasted together.
As much as a chance to reunite with them, Kershaw might be drawn to the Blue Jays by the opportunity to get them over the hump.
Since winning back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, Toronto has yet to return to the Fall Classic and has made the playoffs only three times. Yet there's little question about the current team's upside, as there's lots to like about its Vladimir Guerrero Jr.-led offense and Kevin Gausman- and Jose Berrios-led rotation.
One potential catch is that Toronto might be a little too far afield for Kershaw, who grew up in Texas before joining the Dodgers. And if he wants a challenge, he frankly can do better.
5. Seattle Mariners
If Kershaw is going to leave his comfort zone for a challenge, the Seattle Mariners might be the fit for him.
Once the Washington Nationals made it to the World Series in 2019, the Mariners were all alone as the only franchise in MLB that has yet to play in the Fall Classic. And we aren't talking about a small sample size of chances here. The Mariners have been around since 1977.
On top of that, the club's 20-year playoff drought isn't just the longest in Major League Baseball. It's the longest in the four major North American men's professional sports.
Yet the Mariners are on the up-and-up. "Fun differential" got them to 90 wins in 2021. They're now heading into 2022 with a young, exciting lineup and American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray in their rotation. Adding Kershaw to said rotation would give the M's yet another reason to dream big.
However, there isn't a whole lot in the way of familiarity for Kershaw in Seattle. And if he's going to land in the AL West, he might see two more attractive options.
4. Los Angeles Angels
If Kershaw would prefer to stick in the greater Los Angeles area, the Los Angeles Angels may be more than happy to take his call.
If nothing else, there's a round peg/round hole appeal to Kershaw and the Angels. They added decent upside to their rotation by signing right-handers Noah Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen, but Kershaw offers the kind of reliability and veteran leadership that the team still needs.
This is not to say that he'd be the only star in town. Two-way marvel Shohei Ohtani and center fielder Mike Trout have four MVPs between them, and third baseman Anthony Rendon is likewise a superstar when he's healthy. In Joe Maddon, the Angels are also captained by one of baseball's most accomplished managers.
Kershaw might also be sold on the possibility of helping the Angels get out of their rut. They've made the playoffs only once in the last 12 years, and they couldn't even salvage a winning record in any of the last six.
However, there is another home that Kershaw might go to that isn't anywhere near Los Angeles.
3. Texas Rangers
If it's a homecoming Kershaw wants, it could be hard to keep him from signing with the Texas Rangers.
As he was born in Dallas and grew up in Highland Park, Kershaw spent his fomative years just a short drive from where the Rangers call home in Arlington. He was unsurprisingly a Rangers fan, specifically of Will Clark.
Though the Rangers are coming off a 102-loss season, they've spent over a half-billion dollars in free agency in an attempt to get back on track in 2022. Some $325 million of that went to former Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, who cheekily hinted at trying to recruit Kershaw to join up.
The other prominent former Dodger in the Rangers dugout is manager Chris Woodward, who was the team's third base coach between 2016 and 2018. As his rotation badly needs another arm, he could conceivably parrot Seager's overtures to Kershaw.
There's nonetheless a question of whether Kershaw really wants to take a chance on a 102-loss team, particularly if another team makes him an offer he can't refuse.
2. New York Mets
Imagine, if you will, a starting rotation fronted by three aces who went full Jeri Ryan and captured seven of nine National League Cy Young awards between 2011 and 2019.
It could happen if the New York Mets get involved on Kershaw. Because even with Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer already atop their rotation, said rotation still needs at least one more arm.
If Kershaw ends up being that guy, money figures to be the primary reason why. Look no further than how Scherzer landed in Queens. In spite of his apparent preference to stay on the West Coast, all it took for Mets owner Steve Cohen to convince him to come east was a contract worth a record $43.3 million per year.
This is another case where the challenge might also be what attracts Kershaw. Not just the one of pitching in New York, but also of delivering the Mets their first World Series championship since 1986.
But as intriguing as this and the other five possibilities are, there isn't much question that it'll be an upset if Kershaw doesn't sign with one team in particular.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Is it Dodgers or bust for Kershaw? Not necessarily, but it's hard to imagine him signing anywhere else.
The Dodgers are the only organization he's ever known since they drafted him sixth overall back in 2006, and the partnership between team and player has been as fruitful as any such pairing this century.
For their part, the Dodgers would love to continue it. As president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told reporters in November: "We really want Kersh to come back—not only because of what he's meant to us looking back, but what he'll mean for us going forward."
As for Kershaw himself, he was notably noncommittal about wanting to be a Dodger after 2021 when reporters raised the subject last February. But the sense of familiarity and winning outlook are obviously there. And judging from Friedman's remark about timing, just because the team didn't offer him $18.4 million in November doesn't mean that kind of money is off the table entirely.
Then again, there's still another door that Kershaw might walk through.
It isn't out of the question that Kershaw will just hang up his spikes for good.
As of last February, he had "no intentions" of calling it quits after the 2021 season. But it's perhaps telling that he hasn't reiterated that stance since then.
The last time he spoke about retirement was when he expressed admiration for Buster Posey's motivation to spend more time with his family.
"I'm happy for him and congratulations on his retirement," he said after Posey's retirement in November. "That's pretty cool that he gets to do that and spend some time with his beautiful family."
Though left unspoken, the pain that also facilitated Posey's retirement is likewise something to which Kershaw can relate. It isn't just last year's forearm injury. Through the years, he's also had back, shoulder and biceps injuries that have sapped his ability to take the mound every fifth day.
Like Posey, Kershaw would also retire with nothing left to prove. He may only be 33, but he has all the trappings of a first-ballot Hall of Famer after 14 seasons with the Dodgers.
No matter when he hangs 'em up, the only thing keeping him from getting in will be the five-year waiting period.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.