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Dodgers 2018 top prospects: No. 1, Walker Buehler

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

As part of a national bumper crop of prospects ready to break into the major leagues pushing triple digits, Walker Buehler is the 2018 top prospect in the Dodgers system. Buehler fell into the Dodgers’ lap after injury concerns saw him drop to the 24th pick in the 2015 draft, and Tommy John surgery delayed Buehler’s eventual arrival to the big leagues. After a brief cameo at the close of 2017, Buehler is primed to play a meaningful role on the 2018 Dodgers, with elite velocity and strikeout potential not currently found in the Dodger rotation after Clayton Kershaw.

Given the track record of success Buehler accomplished prior to his junior season at Vanderbilt, Walker should have been one of the first 10 selections in the 2015 draft. An atypical starter build and injury concerns allowed him to drop to Los Angeles, who had the patience to await Buehler fulfilling his potential. He showed some rust but no loss in stuff after returning from injury in 2016, and 2017 was his national coming out party.

Buehler’s frame gave teams pause, but it hasn’t held him back from showing elite arm strength. He’s listed at 6’2 and 175 lbs. and the weight figure at times looks generous. However, Buehler is a terrific athlete and has the twitchiness to show explosive stuff through plus arm speed. Given his athleticism, he is able to repeat his herky jerky delivery well, with a high three-quarters slot that helps disguise his breaking ball. He can occasionally rush his mechanics and throw his release point off, but his consistency is impressive enough given the recency of his injury lay off.

Buehler has two easy plus pitches, with his fastball being elite. He doesn’t have tremendous life on the pitch, but he consistently sits in the upper 90’s with enough backspin to give the pitch “rise” and hitters little time to pick it up. He controls the pitch well, but he does show more swing and miss potential up in the zone, with the breaking balls working on the lower half.

After the fastball, Buehler’s curveball is his second plus pitch. The curve has true 12-6 shape and like the fastball, is thrown with plus velocity. The pitch doesn’t hop out of the hand like some traditional 12-6 curves, and at times almost looks like a spike curveball. He has good command of the pitch, but given the amount of break he gets on the pitch plus his velocity, it can occasionally be hard to keep in the zone.

Buehler’s slider has plus potential, given that he can touch 90-91 mph with the pitch, but often the pitch looks like a cutter with shorter break. He could use the pitch in the minors to generate ground balls, and his overall ground ball rate of 56% was one of the better numbers in the organization last year. To be a better swing-and-miss pitch, he could add more depth to the offering, but it is a quality go-between from the fastball-curveball.

Buehler showed a change up more frequently in college, but appears to have adopted a firmer change up in the pros. Like the fastball, it isn’t lively but is on the upper bands of velocity for the pitch. It is a clear fourth option for Buehler now but could be an above average offering in the future.

The Dodgers have handled Buehler cautiously since his returned from Tommy John, throwing just 98 innings across four levels last season. While I expect the total to ratchet up in 2018, I don’t expect him to see him throw more than 150 innings this year, even if he’s in a pivotal rotation role by mid-season. Buehler held his stuff into the late innings in college, but hasn’t been asked to work deep much as a pro.

Given a potential innings limit in 2018, the Dodgers could employ Buehler much in the way they used Rich Hill in 2017, going twice through an order before turning the game over to the bullpen. Given the quality of his stuff, he should be able to work consistently into the fifth inning in this role while still keeping his pitch count in check. Should they decide to break him in more softly, he could also be an elite arm in the pen down the stretch, or be deployed in a multiple inning role. The bottom line is that his velocity and stuff will play in any role Los Angeles chooses.

I don’t see a future as a workhorse number one for Buehler, à la Clayton Kershaw or even Julio Urias, so I didn’t give him an 80 grade. He still is close to untouchable as a prospect and could be one of the best arms on the big league club when he finally gets the call. Expect Buehler to factor heavily in the Dodgers’ postseason plans, as either the next best arm in the rotation behind Kershaw, or as an elite bridge to Kenley Jansen in the pen.

2018 top Dodgers prospects

RK NAME POS OD AGE LEVEL OVERALL RISK CEILING PROS CONS
RK NAME POS OD AGE LEVEL OVERALL RISK CEILING PROS CONS
1 Walker Buehler RHSP 23.08 AA 70 50 70 FB true ++ pitch, chance for 4 pitches, upside will fight his command, atypical starter build
2 Keibert Ruiz C 19.08 HiA 70 50 70 elite barrel control, rare offensive ceiling for C receiving can be a little noisy
3 Alex Verdugo CF/RF 21.10 MLB 65 55 60 ++ hit tool, bat speed, production, pro readiness ceiling not as high as peers, ? on power ceiling
4 Dennis Santana RHSP/RP 21.11 AA 65 50 65 elite SNK, arm strength, flashes + SL, CH longterm stamina, release will drop, flatten pitches
5 Jeren Kendall CF 22.02 LoA 65 45 70 elite athleticism, ++ speed, + arm and d, productive swing and miss concerns, a little stiff at the plate
6 DJ Peters CF/RF 22.04 HiA 60 45 65 excellent athlete/size, + game power, offensive ceiling swing and miss concerns, might end up in OF corner
7 Yadier Alvarez RHSP/RP 22.01 AA 60 45 65 swing and miss SL, consistently + velo, loose arm poor command, FB doesn't miss bats, relief profile
8 Dustin May RHSP 20.07 HiA 55 45 65 electric arm, high spin rate FB and BB, polished arm slot lower, easier on LHH, needs strength
9 Will Smith C/2B 23.00 AA 55 50 55 + athlete for C, excellent plate discipline, defense offensive production can fluctuate, atypical C build
10 Mitchell White RHSP/RP 23.03 AA 55 45 60 high K potential, chance for + SL and CT, FB Velo injury history, command wavers, poss. reliever
11 Yusniel Diaz CF/RF 21.06 AA 55 50 55 improved swing for pop potential, arm, defensive pot. in game power lagging, tweener profile
12 Cristian Santana 3B 21.01 LoA 55 40 65 excellent build, loose athlete, chance for + power long swing, chance for swing and miss, raw
13 Edwin Rios 3B/1B 23.11 AAA 55 45 60 big raw power, strong, productive hitter, arm strength avg bat speed, fringy at 3rd, mistake hitter
14 Starling Heredia LF/RF 19.02 LoA 55 35 70 man-child physique, huge raw power, upside still raw at the plate, serious swing and miss
15 Morgan Cooper RHSP 23.06 NA 55 50 55 good frame, + BB with BB manipulation, production injury history, longer arm action, ceiling more #3
16 Gavin Lux SS 20.04 LoA 55 50 55 should stick at SS, athletic, plate discipline at age overall offensive ceiling, some hit struggles early
17 Jordan Sheffield RHSP/RP 22.10 HiA 55 45 60 electric arm, + present fastball and CV, athletic production doesn't match stuff, likely reliever
18 Imani Abdullah RHSP 20.11 LoA 55 45 60 excellent frame, upside, feel for spin on CB 17 a redshirt year, limited exposure, little stiff
19 Kyle Farmer C/3B 27.07 MLB 50 50 45 good feel for hit, offensive profile at C, utility more productive bench bat then starter, age
20 Caleb Ferguson LHSP 21.09 HiA 50 45 50 K production, 3 pitch mix, command, feel for spin upside more mid rotation, maxed out frame
21 Connor Wong C/2B 21.10 LoA 50 45 50 versatile talent, good athlete for a C, solid power prod some swing and miss, build not projectable
22 Josh Sborz RHSP/RP 24.03 AA 50 45 50 high floor, command of three pitches, competitive stuff has backed up this season, likely reliever
23 James Marinan RHSP 19.06 ROK 50 40 55 projectable frame, flashes + SNK, chance for +CH slurvy BB, more middle than upper rotation upside
24 Devin Smeltzer LHSP 22.08 HiA 50 45 50 high pitchability, 3 pitch mix, throws nothing straight fringe avg velo, 4th or 5th starter ceiling
25 Matt Beaty 1B/LF 24.11 AA 50 45 50 excellent feel for hit, career production, game pop limited ceiling, future defensive home
26 Andrew Sopko RHSP 23.08 AA 50 50 45 3 pitch mix, pitchability, command, deceptive velo can be fringy, bottom rotation upside
27 Ariel Sandoval CF/RF 22.05 HiA 50 35 60 livey athlete, raw power, arm, 2nd half production too raw at plate, noisey set-up, high swing and miss
28 Tim Locastro SS/2B/CF 25.09 AAA 50 45 45 good bat to ball skills, high steal rate, versatile fringe pop, stretched at SS and CF, upside
29 JT Chargois RHRP 27.04 AAA 50 40 55 heavy life on SNK, GB ability, arm strength limited track record, long injury history, age
30 Jake Peter 2B/SS 24.11 AAA 50 45 45 fluid LH swing, arm strength, versatile utility/bench upside, ? on overall pop
31 Yaisel Sierra RHRP 27.01 AAA 50 40 50 good velo, SL will flash +, quick arm command, incon. release, FB can be straight
32 Wilmer Font RHSP/RP 27.10 MLB 50 40 50 excellent K production, rise on FB, + SL age, previous command issues, upside
33 Ibandel Isabel 1B 22.09 HiA 50 30 60 ++ raw power, physical build, strength huge swing and miss, poor defender, raw
34 Mitchell Hansen CF/RF 21.11 SS 45 40 55 chance for 5 tools, upside, projectable frame struggling to break full season, swing and miss
35 Errol Robinson SS 23.06 AA 45 45 50 smooth infield actions, throwing arm, solid athlete better long speed than SB threat, off. ceiling
36 Johan Mieses RF/CF 22.09 AA 45 40 55 impressive arm, defensive ceiling, raw power serious swing and miss concerns
37 Omar Estevez 2B/SS 20.01 HiA 45 40 55 added defensive versatility, some feel for hit production stagnated at Hi A, power potential
38 Donovan Casey CF/RF 22.01 SS 45 45 50 twitchy athlete, production, solid bat to ball skills ceiling more 4th OF than starter, power ceiling
39 Edward Paredes LHRP 31.06 MLB 45 45 45 K production, tough on LHH, + SL age, one pitch reliever, LOOGY upside
40 Rob Segedin 3B/LF 29.05 MLB 45 45 45 hit vs lefties, gets most of tools, avg pop bench bat upside, limited defender, upside
41 Drew Jackson SS/2B 24.09 AA 45 40 50 elite athlete, + to ++ speed and arm strength offense improving but limited ceiling, utility upside
42 Wills Montgomerie RHSP/RP 22.10 LoA 45 40 50 spin rate, durable build, flashes + velo and CV uneven production, command wavers
43 Cody Thomas RF 23.06 LoA 45 35 55 great build, good athlete, chance for above avg pop still raw, swing and miss concerns
44 Jesen Therrien RHRP 25.00 AAA 45 45 45 SL flashes +, good command and K production TJ wipes out '18. middle relief/ROOGY upside
45 Carlos Rincon RF 20.06 SS 45 35 55 big raw power, physical upside, bat speed pretty raw offensively, serious swing and miss
46 Kyle Garlick CF/RF/LF 26.02 AA 45 45 45 productive, feel for hitting, avg pop 4th outfielder profile, age, fringe speed
47 Luke Raley LF/RF 23.06 HiA 45 40 50 muscular build, chance for above avg pop just avg bat speed, possible swing and miss
48 Luis Paz 1B/C 21.09 SS 45 40 50 power production, bat speed, strong build ? on ultimate defensive home, avg athlete
49 Riley Ottesen RHRP 23.05 LoA 45 40 50 good velo, will flash + SL, arm speed poor college production, likely reliever only
50 Rylan Bannon 3B 21.11 SS 45 45 45 college/pro production, good feel for hit, game pop skills over tools, ceiling, possible utility upside
51 Leo Crawford LHSP 21.01 LoA 45 40 50 solid production, command of 3 pitch mix fringe velo, not as projectable, likely back end
52 Zach Reks LF/RF 24.05 HiA 45 45 45 feel for hit, on base skills, productive - power, age, 4th OF profile
53 Romer Cuadrado LF/RF 20.08 SS 45 35 55 excellent frame, chance for + raw power development lagging behind age, swing and miss
54 Ryan Moseley RHRP 23.06 LoA 45 40 50 chance for ++ snk, big groundball potential struggles with command, results don't match stuff
55 Jared Walker 3B/RF 22.02 LoA 45 40 50 + size/athleticism combo, chance for hit/power, + arm raw, buggy whip swing, error prone in IF
56 Zach Pop RHRP 21.06 NA 45 40 50 good life/velo combo on FB, solid build, poss. CH mid relief profile, SL loses shape in low slot
57 Corey Copping RHRP 24.03 AA 45 45 45 good SL, bulldog mentality, decent production FB velo avg to fringe, middle relief ceiling
58 Shea Spitzbarth RHRP 23.06 AA 45 45 45 agressive mound demeanor, arm strength, CV middle relief upside, maxed out frame, size
59 Layne Somsen RHRP 28.10 AA 45 45 45 tough overhead BB, production, athletic limited mid relief ceiling, age, avg FB velo
60 Tony Gonsolin RHRP 23.11 HiA 45 40 50 arm speed, flashes + SL, solid K production lithe build, not quite late relief upside
61 Alfredo Tavarez RHSP/RP 20.04 LoA 45 35 50 king sized frame, arm strength, K production still raw mechanically, repeating arm slot, command
62 Aneurys Zabala RHRP 21.03 LoA 45 40 50 will flash ++ arm strength, some feel for spin relief profile, command, limited physical upside
63 Michael Boyle LHSP 23.11 HiA 45 40 45 pitch movement, pitchability, 3 pitches no plus pitch, fringy velo, #5 starter/swingman
64 Jefrey Souffront 2B/3B 20.11 ROK 45 35 50 some feel for hit, quick bat, mature plate approach distance from the majors, build not projectable
65 Jacob Amaya SS/2B 19.02 ROK 45 35 50 chance to stick at SS, good athlete, some feel for hit distance from majors, offensive ceiling
66 Ronny Brito SS 19.00 SS 45 35 50 infield actions, long athlete, chance to hit ? on overall offensive potential, far from majors
67 Logan Crouse RHRP 21.04 LoA 45 35 50 size, projectability, athleticism in delivery, arm action Fringy present velo, lots of projection left
68 Chris Mathewson RHSP/RP 21.10 HiA 45 40 45 SNK/SL mix, solid production, command back of rotation, middle relief upside, fringe velo
69 Adam Bray RHSP 24.11 HiA 45 40 45 durability, feel for spin, good command fringe starter upside, upside, avg K potential
70 Brian Moran LHRP 29.06 AA 40 40 45 funk in delivery, tough in LHH, K potential limited ceiling, fringe velo, age
71 Nolan Long RHRP 24.02 HiA 40 40 45 long frame, athletic for size, FB flashes + long levers to control, command, likely reliever
72 Mike Ahmed 1B/3B 26.02 AA 40 40 45 productive in '16, swing plane, avg pop bat speed, age, limited upside
73 Nathan Witt RHRP 21.11 ROK 40 35 50 good build, projectable, arm strength project arm, distance from majors, relief upside
74 Travis Taijeron LF/RF 29.02 AAA 40 40 45 good career power production, physical build age, defensive upside, swing and miss concern
75 Jacob Scavuzzo LF 24.02 AAA 40 40 45 solid tool profile, still a chance for upside game going backward, struggling hit tool
76 Max Gamboa RHRP 22.04 ROK 40 35 50 excellent arm strength, + to ++ velo, good frame production does not match stuff, incon. SL
77 Dean Kremer RHRP 22.03 HiA 40 40 45 decent athleticism and frame, K production, sink on FB was hit hard in HiA. Homer prone, no + pitch
78 Moises Perez 2B 20.08 LoA 40 40 45 loose athlete, some feel for hit offensive ceiling, lower on defensive spectrum
79 Isaac Anderson RHSP/RP 24.07 HiA 40 40 45 versatile arm, some SNK on FB, avg SL no plus or above avg tool, low ceiling, taxi arm