Los Angeles Dodgers star pitcher Clayton Kershaw says he wouldn't have come back if he wasn't healthy

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Retirement was never a realistic option for Clayton Kershaw, so long as his left arm cooperated.

"Once I got healthy, it was no secret -- I was either gonna go play in Texas or stay here," Kershaw said from the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training facility on Sunday afternoon, moments after his one-year, $17 million contract was finalized.

Kershaw, 33, spent most of last season's second half fighting through nondescript soreness around his left elbow. He was placed on the injured list in early July, suffered a setback when he initially rushed through his rehab, then worked his way back only to get shut down days before the playoffs.

When the offseason began, Kershaw didn't know if his health would allow him to keep pitching. He didn't pick up a baseball until the start of January, but his arm felt good as he navigated through the early stages of his throwing program. The Texas Rangers, the team he grew up rooting for, expressed strong interest, and a desire to play near his full-time home became a real draw. But his ties to the Dodgers, and the perpetual opportunity to chase championships, ultimately won out.

Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman called Kershaw as soon as Major League Baseball's lockout was lifted at around 4 p.m. PT and re-iterated the team's desire to bring him back.

"Fortunately," Friedman said, "he felt the same."

Kershaw's contract comes with an additional $5 million in incentives and will end up in the neighborhood of the $18.4 million qualifying offer that the Dodgers declined to extend to him in November so as to not rush him into a decision.

On Friday, Kershaw and the Dodgers agreed to terms. On Sunday, Kershaw passed his physical and jogged onto one of the backfields of the Dodgers' complex, drawing boisterous cheers from a large segment of fans who had lined up along the railings.

"It's fun," Kershaw said shortly after a light workout. "It just happened so fast. It's kind of a blur right now. But it's good to be here, it's good to be a Dodger again."

Kershaw feels "100% health-wise" but will face hitters for the first time on Monday, when the Dodgers go through their first official full-squad workout. If he successfully adds an inning every five days during spring training, as is his plan, he will be stretched out to five innings by the time the regular season begins, which makes him believe Opening Day is a realistic target.

The uncertainty lies with whether that pain around his left elbow will ultimately resurface.

"I did a bunch of MRIs today and yesterday -- everything looks good from there," Kershaw said. "The only thing I can say about last year is I probably wasn't as patient as I should've been. I could've probably waited a little bit longer on the initial time. But at the end of the day, it took me a solid three months to get healthy this offseason. I didn't have three months last year anyway. Looking back at it, it probably wouldn't have made that much of a difference. It just needed time. I had time this offseason to do that, so I feel good about my health right now."

Kershaw is a three-time Cy Young Award winner, a former MVP and an eight-time All-Star who has accumulated 185 wins in a 14-year career spent entirely with the Dodgers. From 2010 to 2019, he averaged 16 wins and 200 innings while posting a 2.31 ERA and recording five times as many strikeouts as walks, establishing himself as the predominant pitcher of the decade. Injuries, most notably to his back, continually limited him, ultimately dropping his fastball velocity into the lower 90s. But Kershaw still frequently sported some of the lowest ERAs in the sport.

During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Kershaw regained some of his lost fastball velocity, posted a 2.16 ERA in 10 regular-season starts and finally won an elusive World Series championship. The following year, he navigated around a 3.39 ERA through his first 18 starts but experienced discomfort around his left forearm and elbow in early July. Kershaw returned in the middle of September and completed four starts. But in his fifth, on the first day of October, he walked off the Dodger Stadium mound in the second inning with a recurrence of the same issue and didn't pitch again.

"I wouldn't have come back if I didn't think I could be healthy," Kershaw said. "I wouldn't have come back if I didn't think I could pitch a full season and be ready to go. That's what I'm here to do."

Friedman still has some holes to fill on his roster, largely in the rotation but also in the back end of the bullpen. The team would like to add some additional depth to its position-player group, but it might also try to attain a big bat. Bringing back Kershaw, however, was the Dodgers' "biggest priority," Friedman said.

Shortly after what amounted to about a 10-minute conversation with Friedman on Thursday, Kershaw called Chris Young, the longtime starting pitcher who is now the Rangers' general manager. The Rangers lost more than 100 games last season, but they have since signed shortstop Corey Seager, second baseman Marcus Semien and starting pitcher Jon Gray to deals that totaled nearly $600 million.

They wanted to add Kershaw to the mix, but Kershaw didn't want to leave the only organization he has ever known.

"That was a hard phone call, to tell CY," Kershaw said. "I'm a good friend of CY. I think the world of him, and I think he's gonna do great things in Texas. But at the end of the day, I wanted to be here and win a world Series. I think the Dodgers give me the best chance do to that, and I'm excited to be back."