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What Walker Buehler’s injury means for the Dodgers in the short term and long term

Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Atlanta Braves 11-2 during Game 5 during a National League Championship Series baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

It’s clear that with Walker Buehler shut down for six to eight weeks that the Dodgers will need to add a starting pitcher this season. But the questions are when, and from where?

Buehler’s diagnosis was equal parts despondence and relief, Schrödinger’s MRI results if you will. The progression of news from elbow discomfort to forearm strain for someone already with a Tommy John surgery under his belt made it easy to expect Buehler to miss nearly all of 2023. A right flexor strain means Buehler will simply miss nearly the rest of 2022 instead.

At least.

The near term

Immediately, the Dodgers don’t need to panic. Monday was the first of three off days in an eight-day span, allowing the rotation some breathing room for rest and maneuvering as they see fit.

Couple that with Andrew Heaney’s expected return from the injured list, perhaps by this Sunday, the Dodgers won’t necessarily feel the pinch for at least another week and a half.

But after Monday, June 20, the Dodgers start a stretch of 20 straight game days, which will further strain the pitching staff, especially if the pitcher limit lowers from 14 to 13 as expected. The team was already considering a six-man rotation for at least part of that stretch, and that could still be in the offing, only with different arms.

The Dodgers like to give extra rest to their starters whenever feasible. So far this year, they’ve had a pitcher start on four days rest (or sooner; Mitch White’s May 21 entrée into the rotation was a shortened outing, with three days rest after a relief appearance) 18 times, just 30 percent of their games. Thirteen of those starts came during the stretch of 31 games in 30 days, which is instructive. Less than half of the Dodgers starts in that schedule crunch came on four days rest, a period that included spot starts by Michael Grove and Ryan Pepiot.

Available arms on the 40-man roster that could fill in for a start or two to provide extra rest for the rotation include:

  • Grove, who is currently active, but more for extra bullpen duty for now
  • Pepiot, who has been wild (11 walks in 11⅓ innings) in his three starts
  • White, who was optioned Friday and can’t return until June 25 unless replacing an injured player
  • Andre Jackson, who struggled badly in Triple-A to start this season. In his first 16 innings this year, over parts of seven games, he allowed 18 runs and walked 21 batters, striking out 10. Starting with the second inning on May 20, Jackson has allowed five runs in 17 innings, with a still-high nine walks and 15 strikeouts.

What they have

The best Dodgers pitcher this season is Tony Gonsolin, off to a career-best start with a 1.58 ERA through 11 starts. But he’s really only pitched deep into a season once in his first six years as a professional, throwing one out shy of 140 innings between Rancho Cucamonga and Tulsa in 2018.

Tony Gonsolin innings pitched

Year Majors Minors Postseason Total
Year Majors Minors Postseason Total
2016 31.0 5.0 36.0
2017 70.0 0.7 70.7
2018 128.0 11.7 139.7
2019 40.0 41.3 81.3
2020 46.7 9.3 56.0
2021 55.7 12.7 4.0 72.3
2022 57.0 57.0

Other than that, Gonsolin has never thrown more than 81⅓ innings in a season, and last year was limited by shoulder soreness to just 72⅓ innings. He’s already within three starts of passing that total this year.

Julio Urías obliterated his career high in innings pitched last year, and should be relied upon more heavily now this year, but within reason. Clayton Kershaw already missed five weeks this year, and after missing the postseason last year, most of the 2022 regular season will be about making sure he’s ready and able to go this October. Those are the two certain playoff starting pitchers on the team at the moment, or as certain one can be almost four months before the postseason.

The way Gonsolin is pitching, he would certainly start in the postseason, too, and not just the shortened stints he had in 2020.

Add in Tyler Anderson and, likely by this weekend, Heaney, the Dodgers have five capable arms in the rotation. It’s enough to get by for the next few weeks.

In other words, the Dodgers don’t have to panic and make a move out of desperation, though that has never really been the modus operandi of this front office, anyway.

Down the road

If all goes well, Buehler could rejoin the Dodgers by late August or September, and step right back into the rotation for October, and things would be hunky dory. But it’s going to take a lot to get to that point, and there’s so much unknown that the team can’t possibly count on his return for roster-planning purposes.

Same goes for Dustin May, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery he had in May 2021. He’s due back at some point after the All-Star break. May at some point in August or September looking like he did in April 2021 would be an ideal scenario for the Dodgers, and give them another viable playoff starter. But can you count on it? I don’t think so.

Of the other pitchers on the 60-day injured list, most are relievers. Jimmy Nelson is probably the farthest away, hoping for a September return. Blake Treinen is at least throwing again. He, Tommy Kahnle, and Victor González could all be back at some point after the All-Star break. In theory, especially with Treinen, bolstering the bullpen lessens the need to add a starting pitcher. But the need is still there.

Danny Duffy is the wild card here. He’s probably likely to be the earliest to return from the injured list, after flexor tendon surgery of his own last October. In spring training the talk was Duffy, a career starting pitcher, would pitch in the bullpen this year, in hopes of contributing. It will be interesting if plans change in light of Buehler’s injury, and how that might affect Duffy’s own return timetable.

Among the prospects on the farm, Bobby Miller is the highest-rated of the bunch. The right-hander, drafted by the Dodgers in the first round in 2020, has struggled a bit with Double-A Tulsa. But it’s not out of the question he, like Pepiot and Miller, could make his major league debut at some point this season.

Gavin Stone, another 2020 draft pick, selected four rounds after Miller, has pitched even better in Double-A, with a 39-percent strikeout rate, nearly matching (40) Miller’s strikeout total (43) in half the starts. It’s at least conceivable that Stone could pitch his way into the majors later this season.

But to expect either Miller or Stone, or even Pepiot or Grove, to appear, let alone start a game in the postseason for the Dodgers is farfetched.

When the Dodgers inevitably trade for a starting pitcher, it will likely be someone who could help them in the postseason as well as just getting there and improving the playoff seeding. But the team has enough to get by for now, and the next few weeks will determine just how acute that starting pitching need really is.