While Texas Rangers fans still don't know who'll get the ball when the club opens its new stadium the season after next, they now know one pitcher it won't be. Highland Park High School-ex Clayton Kershaw re-signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday afternoon, committing himself to at least three more years with the only club he's ever pitched for.
Speculation has been that this was the off-season when Kershaw, who grew up a Rangers fan before becoming one of the best left-handed pitchers in the history of baseball, would come home. He would exercise the opt-out clause in his Dodgers contract that neatly coincided with the Rangers' transition to Globe Life Field and become a 21st century Nolan Ryan, reviving his moribund hometown club's spirits and playoff chances.
That's not happening now, thanks to $93 million from the Dodgers. It's a good thing for the Rangers.
Had the Rangers' front office managed to sign Kershaw, they would have been like the married couple who have a kid just to try to keep their relationship together, taking one last stab at reliving the glory of the 2009-2016 seasons.
The Rangers' priority this off-season, as it should be next off-season, needs to be shedding payroll and streamlining the team's roster as its next wave of talent develops in the minors.
Kershaw's presence would have sold tickets and improved the energy around the team, but it also would've had the negative effect of pushing the Rangers into Major League Baseball no-man's land.
When the league doubled its number of wild-card playoff teams from two to four in 2012, it also expanded the number of teams that can consider themselves contenders in any given year by about the same factor. Those lower-rung contenders, like the Rangers were in 2017 and would've been in 2019 had they signed Kershaw, get stuck on a treadmill — they can't fully give in and focus on player development and draft position nor can they genuinely compete for a championship.
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At the height of his powers, Kershaw might have been capable of dragging an otherwise ordinary or even sub-par Rangers team to a division championship or more. In 2014, Kershaw racked up more than 16 wins above replacement (WAR), according to Fangraphs, putting up an ERA of less than 2.20 in more than 230 innings pitched. That version of Kershaw, the force-of-nature one, would've been worth the more than $30 million a season for any team.
As good as he remains, it's doubtful that that Kershaw will ever be seen again, however. Over the last three years, Kershaw has merely been very good, rather than remarkable. He hasn't cracked 200 innings pitched thanks to a balky back and has seen his WAR figure dip from 6.5 in 2016 to 3.5 in 2018. Perhaps most troubling, Kershaw's strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio fell below 10 for the first time since 2013 last season, a worrying sign for a pitcher who's made his bones with dominant stuff.
Had Kershaw fulfilled his previously assumed destiny and come home to Arlington, it would have been a joy to see him climb the mound in a Rangers uniform. That joy likely wouldn't have been sustainable through multiple disabled-list visits and third-place finishes, which is what the team would've been signing up for.
Let's pick this up again in 2022, when Kershaw's new deal expires. Maybe the circumstances will be right for him to return to DFW for a victory lap.