Part of a 2015 draft for the Dodgers that at first seemed too good to be true on draft night, Walker Buehler looked like a steal at pick 24th overall before news broke that he would require Tommy John surgery prior to starting his professional career.
"Good things come to those who wait," as the old adage goes, so I elected not to ding Buehler for the surgery because the value when healthy is just too significant to downgrade. Buehler is the last prospect ranked before the elite tiers, and has the highest floor and ceiling of pitching prospects rated thus far. Though this review will likely look the same at this time next season, be patient, because Buehler could be battling for the position of top pitching prospect in the system at some point in 2017.
I’ve profiled Buehler twice already before he’s thrown a professional pitch, so pardon the redundancy. Buehler entered the 2015 college season as arguably the top college arm in the draft. He was Baseball America’s top pitching prospect on the Cape during the 2014 season, and helped lead Vanderbilt to a national championship prior to that, often outshining notable teammate Carson Fulmer. While Buehler had concerns on his build, there was no question about his stuff following his sophomore season.
It wasn’t that Buehler was bad as a junior, quite the opposite in fact, he just didn’t dominate as expected and took a step back in command. This would be more of a concern if we didn’t have the elbow surgery to point at as possible causality. Buehler made adjustments in his delivery and repertoire to endure the arm issues he suffered during the 2015 season, taking the luster off his prospect star. While acknowledging his health concerns, I still believe the best course in evaluating Buehler is looking at the pitcher he was during his sophomore year.
Buehler is a four-pitch pitcher when healthy, with all playing up to plus at points in his career. Buehler’s fastball has late life and sat consistently in the 93-96 mph range during his college career. Buehler has both a curve and a slider, both with tighter shape than the traditional profile of each. By the end of the 2015 season, he was throwing a steeper slider that looked more like a hybrid of the two, and he may ultimately pick one early in his return to refine it into a pure outpitch. Buehler’s changeup is more firm than the average change, but is thrown with arm speed and deception.
Buehler’s control was more advanced as a sophomore, and was likely hampered by his arm issues. Buehler is a terrific athlete and can get by with a high maintenance delivery. He sometimes will rush his motion and pull pitches glove side, but his overall body control is a plus. Buehler is quick off the mound and defends the position quite well.
The biggest knock on Buehler prior to surgery was Buehler’s build. Listed at 6’2 and 175 pounds, Buehler is lithe and doesn’t show much room to add bulk with narrow hips and shoulders. He was remarkably durable through his sophomore season and summer workload following the College World Series in 2014, and though he missed some time at the start of 2015, still managed to surpass 100 innings. It’s quite possible this workload contributed to his eventual surgery, but also is not a determination I’m qualified to make. He could hold his stuff deep into college outings, and when healthy, I have trust in his ability to hold up over the course of a full season.
Buehler has drawn comparisons to Zack Greinke for his size and broad repertoire, though I would not put him in that class in terms of command and pitchability. He has the upside of a number two pitcher but might be better protected in a deep rotation that won’t require him to run up too high of innings counts early in his career. Buehler is advanced enough that when he is healthy, he may not even require two minor league seasons before being major league ready.
If Buehler can return to the mound in the fall of 2016, the Dodgers might be able to fast track him in 2017, giving him quick stops at both A levels before finishing the year in Double A. That could still lead to a 2018 MLB ETA if you are thinking aggressive, and it’s certainly doable if he avoids a setback. The arm surgery does leave a gap in the Dodgers organization in terms of talent level in the lower minors and in trade value from their 2015 draft, but as you’ve seen, the system is quite deep and can absorb this loss for 2016. If Buehler recovers as expected, he will be a vital cog in the next wave of pitching prospects as Jose De Leon and Julio Urias look to graduate soon.