LOS ANGELES -- After throwing his first bullpen session of the offseason last week, Clayton Kershaw gave an upbeat progress report to Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.
"Kersh felt good," said Honeycutt. "Clayton is getting back in the right direction."
Honeycutt, reflecting the public stance of the organization, is cautiously optimistic that Kershaw's decreased velocity in 2018 is a reversible result of his physical condition and mechanics, not a sign that the franchise ace's career is in decline.
After signing a three-year, $93 million extension in early November, Kershaw said he would use the offseason to heal his body, add strength and flexibility and sync those two improvements to recapture the mechanics and delivery that resulted in three Cy Young Awards and an MVP Award.
Kershaw was on the disabled list twice in 2018 with shoulder and back issues. He went 9-5, his 2.73 ERA would have placed him fourth in the National League (he fell two-thirds of an inning short of qualifying) and he pitched 191 1/3 innings counting the postseason. He went the first six years of his Major League career without being on the disabled list, but has needed it five times in the last five seasons.
"From my understanding, it's structure and body composition where maybe he compensated to get through and they have to get flexibility back," Honeycutt said, as opposed to a structural failure that needs repair. "Right now, he's throwing and he's staying in his line, it's good. When he gets out of line, it's not good. His body's telling him what he can and can't do. So, we need to get him to where it's not affecting him going forward. Today he said it's probably the best he's felt. Hopefully everything is moving in the right direction."
Kershaw has had back issues the past three seasons. One working theory is that to protect the back, Kershaw made mechanical adjustments that reduced his fastball velocity, and he spent the season trying to compensate for the velocity loss by relying on hard sliders more than ever in his career.
"You know, he's not one to make excuses, but he had, health-wise, he was dealing with stuff," said Honeycutt. "We've just got to get him strong and healthy to get back where he was. I mean, he was able to pitch with what he had, but not at his level, but I think if the doctors and strength guys can get him feeling closer to what he wants to be, he's working hard and he said he's starting to feel better. You know, with that many innings, there's going to be times where you just get by, but you're not the same, that's kind of where he was. You just hope the physical and strength comes back to where it was before."
Honeycutt, entering his 14th season as pitching coach, knows about back issues because he needed an epidural injection this month for sciatica pain. But from his recent reconnaissance, his pitchers are in better shape than he is.
He said he hadn't reached Hyun-Jin Ryu or Kenta Maeda yet, but Walker Buehler is "in great shape," Rich Hill has been throwing as much as ever and Thomas Stripling is "over his back issues."
Closer Kenley Jansen continues his recovery from a 5 1/2-hour heart procedure in late November and is expected in Los Angeles this week. Barring a setback, he should be ready for the start of Spring Training.
Honeycutt said Julio Urias is likely to see action as a starter and reliever as the club cautiously increases his innings. Urias pitched four regular-season innings last year coming off shoulder surgery, but threw 6 1/3 innings in the postseason.
"We've just got to be smart and have the right plan and be conscious of the number of innings and not do anything crazy," Honeycutt said. "We'll monitor so we have him for the entire season and not put too much of a workload on him. What's super is pitching out of the 'pen didn't bother him at all. That gives him a few options. I get you want him to start, but to balance that, let him pitch out of the 'pen for a while. Like Buehler, we have to be smart with Julio."
Reliever Caleb Ferguson has thrown his first offseason bullpen after strengthening his shoulder and reliever Tony Cingrani, who missed most of the season with a tender shoulder, impressed bullpen coach Mark Prior last week in a bullpen session at Dodger Stadium.
"I think after missing most of the year, he's a little more conscious with his health," Honeycutt said of Cingrani. "He came in last year without doing enough in the offseason. After all the testing it was nothing major, he just needed to build the area back up. Sometimes, you get behind the 8-ball and you never get out and just have setback after setback. He would be a big lift if he's healthy and does what he did when he came over."