Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler spoke with members of the media this week, including Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic and J.P. Hoornstra of The Orange County Register, saying that he has September 1 as a target date to be back in the club’s rotation.
This makes for quite an aggressive timeline, as he underwent Tommy John surgery August 23 of last year. While some pitchers have returned within 12 months of the surgery in the past, the recovery period has become more cautious in recent years and returning that quickly has become rare. Furthermore, this is Buehler’s second TJS of his career, having first gone under the knife in 2015. A second procedure typically comes with a longer recovery period than the first, making his Buehler’s target all the more noteworthy.
“The day I had surgery, [Dr. Neal ElAttrache] told me it was one of the best surgeries he’s done,” Buehler said. “Maybe that was just him trying to make me feel good, but I’ve really taken it to heart.” As it’s laid out by Buehler, it seems that his ulnar collateral ligament wasn’t actually torn, as is usually the case for a Tommy John procedure. Rather, the culprit was bone chips and fragments in his elbow. While the ligament was still replaced, the overall structural integrity of the elbow wasn’t as bad as it normally would be for this surgery. “I don’t think anything has happened that would tell me that’s not an achievable goal,” Buehler said of his September target. He’s also open to returning in a relief role if he runs out of time but that decision will be made as the situation progresses.
Whether all of this actually leads to Buehler returning by the end of the season remains to be seen, but it would obviously be tremendous for both player and team if it did come to fruition. The righty has established himself as one of the better pitchers in the majors in recent years. From 2018 to 2021, he tossed 564 innings with a 2.82 ERA, 27.7% strikeout rate and 6.1% walk rate. The 14.3 wins above replacement he accrued in that time, per FanGraphs, was seventh among all pitchers in the majors. He wasn’t quite as effective last year, with his ERA spiking to 4.02 over 12 starts, though it’s possible the looming injury was already starting to affect him in that time.
Getting that kind of pitcher back just in time for the stretch run and postseason would be a nice late-season boost for the Dodgers, who are currently leading the National League West but with just a three-game lead over the Diamondbacks. The club currently has a five-man rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urías, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin and Noah Syndergaard, though the latter has struggled to a 5.94 ERA so far and May seems bound for the IL due to a flexor pronator strain. Younger pitchers like Michael Grove and Ryan Pepiot have been in the mix but are both currently on the injured list, while Gavin Stone also got a spot start recently. It’s impossible to tell what shape the rotation will be in come September given the potential for other injuries or midseason trades, but there’s no doubt that peak Buehler would be an upgrade.
Buehler is making $8.025MM this year, his third of four arbitration seasons as a Super Two player. He’ll be eligible for one more pass through arbitration for 2024, likely making a similar salary due to missing most of 2023, after which he’s slated to reach free agency at the age of 30.
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