For Walker Buehler, the biggest story in 2016 was getting back on the mound after Tommy John surgery wiped out his first season with the Dodgers. While recovery from the procedure is not a certainty, Buehler’s lofty status near the top of the prospect list was retained by showing the plus stuff that had him in consideration for the top of the 2015 MLB Draft heading into his junior year. Looking to make up for lost time, the Dodgers will proceed cautiously with Buehler’s workload in 2017, but he could nonetheless climb multiple levels thanks to his pitchability and repertoire.
Since being drafted, I’ve covered Walker Buehler in no fewer than four articles despite only throwing five innings of professional ball, so apologies if this starts to sound repetitive. Walker Buehler’s sophomore season at Vanderbilt, where he frontlined a star-studded rotation in route to the NCAA Championship, pitched with Team USA and then finished the summer in the Cape Cod League playoffs, had put him in the discussion for the top five picks in 2015 Draft. Buehler could not replicate the momentum in 2015 with problems cropping up almost immediately, including forearm stiffness that held him back early in the season.
Eventually, Buehler slid to the Dodgers at pick 24 and before he threw a professional pitch, he underwent Tommy John surgery after signing. My optimism in ranking Buehler high in back-to-back seasons stems largely from the pitcher Buehler was his sophomore year. As we’ve seen with pitchers like Lucas Giolito, Erick Fedde, and Jeff Hoffman, elite level pitchers can come all the way back and still move quickly through the minors, regaining all if not more notoriety in prospect circles.
Buehler hasn’t quite rebuilt his status in some of the larger media rankings, but given the velocity recovery he showed in just five innings, it’s only a matter of time. Buehler typically sat in the mid-90s with Vanderbilt, but in short stints in 2016 he would bump it up even higher. With the likelihood that the Dodgers ease Buehler back into his workload, I would expect him to find a middle ground between the two, but still putting him near or at plus level on his arm strength.
Buehler’s fastball had some armside run, but it did look a bit heavier with the Dodgers. Some of this may be attributed to an arm slot that now looks closer to high three-quarters than previously, though this is only a slight change from his Vanderbilt days. The higher arm slot also helps give depth to his two breaking pitches, and is also important given Buehler’s smallish 6’1 frame.
Buehler went back and forth between curve and slider at Vanderbilt, with the slider flashing the superior potential as a strikeout pitch, and has almost knuckle-curve-like depth and movement. The curveball in college was a bigger breaking pitch that wasn’t just a show-me pitch, but I would think it would settle in as average at the professional level. Buehler also had a firmer change up he could throw for strikes.
Buehler’s command suffered through arm issues as a junior, but as a sophomore he was ahead of schedule in developing pitchability. He’s a strikeout pitcher that will mix in all of his offerings, but should have the fastball velocity to keep him from having to nibble at the big league level. Command will be something to watch as the season progresses and Buehler puts more professional innings under his belt.
Buehler’s high effort delivery and build may be a concern to some, baseball seems to be coming around to accepting smaller starters with efforted deliveries. It did not slow Buehler down through a heavy sophomore workload, though it may have contributed to his struggles as a junior (even with a calmer delivery and larger build, the innings he pitched as a sophomore would have likely stressed several players his age). Buehler is a good athlete and will repeat his delivery and should pitch with above average control and command as a major leaguer.
The Dodgers have been resistant to trade talk this offseason surrounding Buehler, and that should speak to his ceiling. He’s been compared to Zack Greinke in terms of size and stuff, though there’s a cerebral element to Greinke that makes comparisons to him tough (not that Buehler lacks, he’s just unproven, where we’ve seen Greinke make minor makeovers to his stuff to adapt to the league). Buehler’s ceiling grade will only increase as he shows improved stuff further removed from surgery.
The best-case scenario for Buehler is that he develops into a quality number-two starter with strikeout potential and more durability than you’d expect from the eye test. Buehler was a steal for the Dodgers at the 24th pick and if he pitches up to his ability in 2017, you will see more and more outlets repeat this. Buehler is a key prospect in the system as a homegrown and cost controlled arm that has the necessary upside for a championship-aspiring ball club, and don’t be surprised if he’s closer to realizing it than five professional innings would suggest.
Newcomer Ryan Moseley, acquired on Sunday from the Orioles for Vidal Nuño, checks in on our list, ranked as the No. 40 Dodgers prospect.