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Walker Buehler limited, but expected to contribute in 2018

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers-Media Day Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler faced hitters for the first time all spring on Monday, pitching a scoreless inning in a B game against the White Sox at Camelback Ranch.

The right-hander, rated the consensus Dodgers top prospect and somewhere between the 12th and 27th-best prospect in baseball by various national lists heading into 2018, allowed a triple against Chicago but also struck out three batters.

This was the first time facing hitters for Buehler all spring in part because the Dodgers were slow-playing him after upper back discomfort in January. The other part is that Buehler is 23 and just over two years removed from Tommy John surgery and the club is treating him with kid gloves.

Buehler pitched just 98 total innings in 2017, which included a stint in September in the majors. He struck out 137 and walked 39 in those innings, with a 3.77 ERA.

His role late in 2017 was in the bullpen was in relief since that was the potentially available role for him in the postseason, though that didn’t come to fruition. But the Dodgers view Buehler as a starter going forward.

“The bullpen was something we tried and I think I could be successful there as well but I’m a starter,” Buehler said. “I’m excited to get back to it and hopefully have some success.”

The Dodgers are unquestionably high on Buehler but don’t want to overexert him, at least not in 2018.

“I don’t want to put a number on how many innings but I think it’s fair to say 140-150 innings is attainable,” manager Dave Roberts said. “If Walker is healthy good things are going to happen for him and for us. As far as where this happens that’s just going to play itself out.

“We know he’s going to pitch meaningful innings for us at the major league level. We don’t know when.”

The Dodgers have a full starting rotation at the moment which means Buehler if he’s not in extended spring training would likely start his regular season in Triple-A Oklahoma City. But at some point this season Buehler figures to make some starts for the Dodgers.

“You look on the position player side and the young players we’ve broken in over the last three or four years, we need to start doing that with our starting pitchers,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said, “and get to a point where one or two spots are taken down by our good young pitching and letting them have a runway to develop.

“Hopefully we can get a healthy jump from last year, and continue to build him up to a point where he can continue to put 200 innings on his body year in and year out.”

But just not 200 innings in 2018.

“There is some frustration at not being able to just go out there and try to win games. But at the same time I’m 23 years old, hopefully there is a good amount of baseball ahead of me,” Buehler said. “It’s kind of above my pay grade to question decisions like that. They obviously put time and research into trying to figure out the best way to do this stuff.”