That creaking sound you hear coming from the general direction of the NL West is that of a door of opportunity opening up, and it has everything to do with an injured $215 million pitcher.

You know who, as you’ve surely heard that Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is out with a back injury these days. Given that Kershaw is generally awesome, this is a big enough bummer for the Dodgers. Not to mention all fans who enjoy watching brilliant pitching, of course.

What’s worse is that Kershaw’s outlook is getting iffier by the day. Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times noted the latest on Tuesday afternoon, starting with this:

And then this:

Here’s more from Mattingly, via “We’ll let him throw his way back. He’s gotten far enough away that he’ll need a progression [to return]. This is going to take some time.”

Kershaw’s troubles began with him being scratched from the Dodgers’ domestic opener on Sunday against the San Diego Padres, but at the time the Dodgers’ home opener on April 4 was still in play. Ever since then, however, the date of Kershaw’s eventual return has kept getting moved back.

B/R’s Will Carroll warned that was a possibility, writing that the specific injury to Kershaw’s teres major muscle was one that meant a “broad range of timelines” for the star southpaw’s reappearance.

We now know that Kershaw’s return is not going to happen sooner. As for how much later it could occur, the Dodgers tweeted this out:

If Kershaw isn’t even going to be reevaluated for another couple weeks, then a minor league assignment is all but assured. And given that such an assignment would delay his return even further, it’s conceivable that Kershaw won’t be able to make it back before the end of April.

Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News hit the nail on the head with his second thought here:

He’s right, you know.

Heck, I’ll do him one better: this might be the best chance the other teams in the NL West get all season to get the better of the Dodgers.

The Dodgers have more talent than the other teams in the NL West. That’s clear just to the naked eye, as the $200-plus million the Dodgers have spent on their 2014 roster does look like money well spent on paper. 

The projections also agree that the Dodgers are easily the best team in the NL West. For example, the PECOTA-based projections at Baseball Prospectus have a nine-win gap projected between the Dodgers and the next-best team in the division.

Even the more modest projections at FanGraphs have a sizable gap projected between the Dodgers and everyone else:

If Kershaw does indeed miss a couple more weeks, however, things obviously stand to change. The Dodgers would be missing out on a couple starts from their ace, and that’s no small deal knowing how valuable Kershaw’s starts are.

FanGraphs can show that Kershaw’s 1.83 ERA last year helped make him worth 8.8 wins above replacement as calculated by runs allowed per nine innings (RA-9 WAR). The rough math says he was therefore worth about 1.5 WAR per month.

Which, as it happens, is exactly how much Kershaw was worth last April when he had a 1.73 ERA in six starts. That wasn’t even his best month, as he was worth 2.4 RA-9 WAR in July when he had 1.34 ERA in six starts.

Even if we assume that Kershaw doesn’t have another sub-2.00 ERA in him and dial things back a bit, it’s still hard to make an argument that losing him for a couple weeks wouldn’t hurt.

Kershaw’s been worth an average of 7.6 RA-9 WAR over the last three seasons, or right around 1.3 RA-9 WAR per month. The next best thing in the National League is Cliff Lee, whose 18.0 RA-9 WAR over the last three seasons comes out to an average of 1.0 RA-9 WAR per month.

The bottom line is that a couple weeks without Kershaw could mean anywhere between 1.0 and 2.0 (or even a bit beyond 2.0) WAR lost for the Dodgers.

It’s not easy to translate that into actual wins and losses, but you can think of it this way: there are only a handful of position players capable of generating between 1.0 and 2.0 WAR in a month. The Dodgers losing Kershaw for a few weeks is basically the equivalent of them losing a superstar everyday player.

The Dodgers still have the goods to be a strong team, sure. But until Kershaw comes back, they’re not going to be the team projected to handily win the NL West. Herein lies the cue for the Diamondbacks, Giants, Padres and Rockies:

Win as many games as you can now while the getting’s good in the NL West race.

Even better for these four clubs is that each will have a chance to inflict damage on the Dodgers directly. Including the series against the Padres that the Dodgers are in the middle of right now, six of the eight full series out of the gate on their domestic schedule are against NL West competition.

It’s conceivable that Kershaw would have been able to pitch in five of the six, which might have meant five wins for the Dodgers against NL West foes. But with Kershaw no sure bet to return in April, the stage is set for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction. 

And that could be enough to lead to an upset in the NL West race. Many games are left to be played after the first month of the season is in the books, but losses in April count just as much as losses in any other month.

A couple days ago, the Dodgers were such a huge favorite to win the NL West that the matter was hardly worth discussing. But that was when the Dodgers were still looking at getting a full season from the most dominant pitcher in baseball.

With him sidelined, suddenly the Dodgers don’t look so tough.


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