Dodgers observations: Clayton Kershaw, with opening day almost here, is 'not great'

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Jorge Castillo
·6 min read
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Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw reaches out to catch a baseball during baseball spring training Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw reaches out to catch a baseball during spring training in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The Dodgers’ Arizona residency is winding down. They’ll head to Los Angeles on Saturday, after their final Cactus League game against Cleveland, for the annual three-game Freeway Series against the Angels before flying to Colorado to begin the season against the Rockies.

As of Tuesday, they’ll leave Arizona as they arrived: favorites to win the World Series and become the first back-to-back champions since the New York Yankees. They’re talented, deep and experienced. But questions still exist.

With camp coming to a close, here are a few observations.

KERSHAW’S CACTUS FRUSTRATION

Clayton Kershaw’s offseason was different this year. Winning a World Series, as he put it, lifted a burden off his shoulders. That doesn’t mean he’s mellowed out.

Kershaw wasn’t happy with his last two Cactus League starts and the frustration was evident in his video call with reporters.

“Not great,” Kershaw said after yielding five runs on eight hits over four innings against Milwaukee. “Not a lot of positives. Just keep going, figure it out.”

Kershaw declined to specify where he needed to improve. One possible area is velocity.

Last spring, the left-hander touched 93 mph in his first Cactus League start. It was a positive sign for Kershaw, whose average velocity had dipped to 90.5 mph in 2019. He had visited Driveline Baseball near Seattle that offseason hoping to regain velocity and was successful. Months later, he averaged 91.6 mph in the shortened 60-game season.

His velocity, however, is back down this spring. Kershaw’s fastball has sat at 88 to 90 mph, according to the stadium radar gun. The difference is slight, but notable. The harder he throws the fastball, the bigger the difference between that pitch and his slider. In 2019, the pitches were too similar and Kershaw finished with a 3.03 earned-run average, the highest of his career but still seventh among National League starters.

Kershaw’s last outing came in a B game on a backfield at Camelback Ranch. He held a Brewers lineup stocked with minor leaguers to two runs and four hits across 5-1/3 innings. He posted six strikeouts, one walk and threw 73 pitches.

Kershaw declined to speak to the media afterward. Manager Dave Roberts said the fastball command and “life” were better than in his previous game. Kershaw will next pitch in a Cactus League game against Oakland on Friday at Camelback Ranch. It’ll presumably be his final in-game tuneup before taking the mound opening day April 1 in Denver.

PRICE TO THE 'PEN IS REAL

Dodgers pitcher David Price throws a mock pitch.
Dodgers pitcher David Price throws a mock pitch during a spring training practice in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

David Price is a former Cy Young Award winner set to make $32 million this year — paid 50-50 by the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox. He’s healthy and rested after opting out of last season. He’d occupy a spot in almost every starting rotation in the majors. But there’s a strong chance he won’t start for the Dodgers, at least to begin the season.

The 35-year-old Price said he is open to pitching out of the bullpen and Roberts said it’s a possibility. Price has experience as a reliever, most recently in the 2018 postseason for the Red Sox. He was dominant in the role as the Red Sox went on to beat the Dodgers in the World Series. But he’s never been a full-time reliever.

“Whatever they want me to do, I'm all for it,” Price said. “I'll get outs wherever they ask me to.”

Price likely won’t be the only starter in the bullpen. The Dodgers have an abundance of starting pitching and the overflow could include two others. Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urías are projected to take four rotation spots. The fifth, if Price isn’t the choice, likely goes to Tony Gonsolin, who has drawn high praise from Roberts all camp.

That scenario would leave Price, Dustin May, Jimmy Nelson and possibly Dennis Santana in the bullpen. It’s a surplus any team would love in the return to a 162-game season.

BENCH REMAINS UNCLEAR

The Dodgers’ bench definitely will include Austin Barnes, Chris Taylor, Edwin Ríos and Matt Beaty. Barnes is projected to start around 70 games at catcher, with the other games going to Will Smith. Taylor will bounce around the diamond and play almost every day. Ríos and Beaty will make spot starts in the corner infield spots and appear as pinch-hitters.

Whether the Dodgers add a fifth bench player depends on the number of pitchers they carry. The conventional number is 13 — five starters and eight relievers — but Roberts said the team is considering starting the season with an extra reliever in preparation for hitter-friendly Coors Field.

The candidates for the fifth spot dwindled to three Tuesday when Matt Davidson was cut. Utilityman Zach McKinstry, infielder Sheldon Neuse and journeyman Andy Burns remain. The Dodgers would prefer a right-handed hitter, which hurts McKinstry’s chances. McKinistry and Neuse are on the 40-man roster, while Burns, who was just two for 21 this spring entering Tuesday, is a non-roster invitee. The Dodgers’ other option is acquiring a right-handed batter via trade.

PROSPECT PRAISE

The Dodgers, like every team, are high on their prospects, but two drew consistent praise this spring: second baseman Michael Busch and right-handed pitcher Ryan Pepiot.

Busch, drafted in the first round in 2019, is a good hitter the Dodgers want to master second base. The 23-year-old entered Tuesday two for 10 with a home run in Cactus League games but homered twice in the B game Kershaw started Sunday. Busch is the Dodgers’ third-ranked prospect, according to Baseball America.

The Dodgers drafted the 23-year-old Pepiot out of Butler University two rounds after Busch in 2019. He’s allowed four runs in 2-2/3 innings across three Cactus League games.

“I love the stuff,” Roberts said. “I think it was a good experience for him. I think the game sped up. And that's what experience does for players, the more experience you get. I like his [will to] compete, I like his curiosity, I like his confidence. He's going to be a good pitcher for a long time.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.