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Does James Paxton signing signal the end of Clayton Kershaw’s career as a Dodger?

With Paxton on board, it’s unclear how — or if — the future Hall of Famer fits into Los Angeles’ plans this season.

Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers sits in the dugout after being relieved in the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks during Game One of the Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 07, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Dodgersfree-agent spending spree continued late Monday night, as news broke that the team had reportedly reached an agreement with veteran lefty James Paxton on a one-year, $12 million deal.

Paxton is the third notable starter that L.A. has acquired this winter, following on the heels of the Yoshinobu Yamamoto signing and the trade for star Rays righty Tyler Glasnow. But amid all the hubbub over the Dodgers’ big offseason, there’s one name that’s seemingly fallen through the cracks: Clayton Kershaw, future first-ballot Hall of Famer, erstwhile face of the franchise and still a free agent.

From pretty much the moment the offseason began, everyone assumed that Kershaw would eventually find his way back to the team that drafted him seventh overall way back in 2006 — just like last year, when the lefty was only on the market for a few weeks before reupping with L.A. on a one-year deal. But Kershaw signed that deal in early December; we’re now nearly in February, spring training just weeks away, and as Los Angeles continues to add rotation help, suddenly it seems like a reunion may no longer be in the cards.

Of course, things are a bit more complicated now than they were last winter. Health issues have dogged Kershaw for a number of years now — he hasn’t thrown more than 132 innings in a season since 2019 — but things came to a head in 2023, as shoulder issues sapped his velocity and caused the team to ease up on his workload down the stretch of the regular season. Because this is Clayton Kershaw we’re talking about, he still managed to make it work well enough, pitching to a 2.23 ERA after returning from an IL stint in early August. In the postseason, however, the dam finally broke: The last image we have of Kershaw in a Dodger uniform is him giving up six runs while recording just one out in a shocking NLDS Game 1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A day after the World Series ended, Kershaw announced that he’d undergone surgery to repair the gleno-humeral ligaments and capsule of his left shoulder, adding that he’s “hopeful to return to play at some point next summer”. Obviously, that’s a pretty vague and less-than-inspiring timeline, and we haven’t heard much in the way of concrete information since. Dodgers president Andrew Friedman said that the team “absolutely” wants Kershaw back and that “the ball is squarely in [the Kershaws’] court,” but the last time we heard from the man himself, he was still “in the process” of deciding exactly what his future would hold — and if he even wanted to continue his career at all.

Add it all up, and it sure seems like Kershaw and the Dodgers might finally be parting ways after almost two decades together. To be clear, signing Paxton doesn’t preclude L.A. from bringing back their longtime ace; Paxton has injury concerns of his own, and the lefty could simply be a back-end option to avoid putting undue stress on Kershaw and make sure he reaches the postseason as close to 100 percent as possible. But with each successive signing, the Dodgers are running out of both money and available roster spots, and if they really felt confident that they’d have Kershaw back up and running by, say, the start of the second half, it’s hard to believe they’d be as aggressive as they were in hunting another addition to their rotation.

Even now, even with a fastball sitting closer to 90 than 95, Kershaw remains a very good starting pitcher — he put up sterling numbers yet again last season, with a 2.46 ERA and 137 strikeouts across his 131.2 innings of work. But at this point it’s clear that asking him for anything resembling a full season is simply too much, that his arm only has a certain number of innings left in it. Do the Dodgers have the ability to carve out space for him? Kershaw has long maintained that the only other team he’d be willing to play for is his hometown Rangers, but Texas has plenty of injury concerns of its own to deal with. It’s hard to imagine Kershaw deciding to go out on such a low note, but time is running out.