The Dodgers announced that right-hander Walker Buehler, who recently began a rehab assignment after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year, won’t return to the club this year. He will instead focusing on getting healthy for 2024.
“My goal since last year has been to return to a major league mound this season,” Buehler says in a club statement. “After many conversations with my doctor, the Dodgers’ front office, training staff and my family, we concluded that waiting until next season is the right course of action. I am disappointed that I will not be able to help this team go after a title in the 2023 postseason, but I look forward to returning fully healthy in 2024 and bringing another World Series to L.A.”
Buehler, 29, underwent Tommy John surgery in August of last year. Given that the recovery period for that procedure often pushes to 14 months or more, his ability to return in 2023 was questionable right from the get-go. Nonetheless, he planned to give it a try, saying earlier in the year that he was targeting a September return. That plan still seemed to be on track as recently as this weekend, when Buehler started a rehab assignment, tossing two innings for Triple-A Oklahoma City on Sunday.
But it seems that Buehler, along with the various other parties he mentioned, have decided that it’s no longer feasible. It’s unclear exactly what the situation is, but Jack Harris of the Los Angeles Times reports that there was no setback and that Buehler still feels good physically. He just hasn’t progressed enough and pushing himself in the next few weeks comes with too high a risk of re-injury.
While it sounds like both the pitcher and the club have agreed that prioritizing his long-term health is the sensible approach, it will be a significant challenge for the club in the short-term given the other challenges they are facing in the rotation. Dustin May required flexor tendon surgery earlier this year and Tony Gonsolin required Tommy John surgery not too long ago. Both of them are now out for the remainder of this year and at least part of next year as well. Julio Urías was placed on administrative leave earlier this week as the league investigates him for a possible domestic violence violation. His situation is unclear but it seems unlikely he will be returning anytime soon.
Those absences, along with today’s news about Buehler, make the rotation start to feel a bit flimsy. The Dodgers are in a healthy place overall with a record of 85-54, putting them 13 games up on the Diamondbacks in the division and eight games ahead of the Brewers for a bye through the first round of the playoffs. But starting pitching takes on magnified importance in the postseason when teams lean on their top pitchers more often.
The Dodgers still have Clayton Kershaw on the active roster, though his health is a big question mark at the moment. He already missed over a month of the season, from early July to the middle of August, due to a shoulder issue. While on the IL, he spoke about how he felt fine but was being told to rest after undergoing an MRI. He’s now been back for over a month but it seems that situation is lingering.
Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic looked into the details this week, highlighting that Kershaw failed to hit 90 mph with his fastball at any point in his most recent outing, despite averaging over 91 mph with the pitch earlier in the year. Kershaw continues to assert that he feels fine, in spite of the clearly diminished stuff. Manager Dave Roberts conceded that Kershaw was still not 100% healthy but insisted he would continue to pitch. “He’s going to keep going until he can’t,” Roberts said. “If he is able to take the baseball, he’s going to take the baseball.”
There’s also Lance Lynn, acquired from the White Sox at the deadline, though he has an earned run average of 6.09 on the year. That mark was 6.47 with Chicago and he initially showed better results after changing jerseys, but he went on to allow 15 earned runs over his two most recent starts. Ryan Yarbrough has a 3.80 ERA but the club doesn’t seem to trust him beyond pitching bulk innings out of the bullpen.
Beyond them, the club is relying on rookies, with some encouraging results in there. Bobby Miller has a 3.80 ERA on the year in his 17 starts and Ryan Pepiot is at 0.86 in his four outings. On the less encouraging side, Emmet Sheehan has an ERA of 5.31 while Michael Grove is at 6.61 and currently rehabbing a lat strain.
All in all, there are plenty of questions in that mix, either due to health or a lack of experience or general ineffectiveness. Bringing Buehler back could have been a difference maker, as he has a 3.02 career ERA in the regular season and a 2.94 mark in the postseason. However, it seems that’s not in the cards and the Dodgers will have to cobble together a playoff rotation without him. Buehler will instead set his sights on the 2024 campaign, which will be important for him personally, as that will be his final arbitration season before he is slated to reach free agency.