The Dodgers announced Monday that right-hander Walker Buehler will undergo season-ending surgery on his right elbow on Aug. 23. He’s been out since June 10 after being diagnosed with a Grade 2 flexor strain.
That injury initially called for a six- to eight-week shutdown from throwing, and the Dodgers had surely hoped that Buehler might be able to make a comeback in late September and/or perhaps in the postseason. Instead, he won’t pitch again until next season at the earliest. Further details aren’t clear, as the team declined to provide specifics on the nature of the procedure in its initial announcement.
Buehler, 28, finished fourth in National League Cy Young voting last season but has now had multiple arm issues this season. Once it was clear that the forearm strain would sideline Buehler for as long as three months, he underwent an arthroscopic procedure to remove a bone spur from his elbow — an issue he said had plagued him for the past few seasons.
The arm issue(s) have limited Buehler to 65 innings in 2022, during which time he’s posted a 4.02 ERA with a career-low 21.2% strikeout rate. They’re pedestrian numbers by his lofty standards — both roughly in line with the league-average production among MLB starting pitchers (4.09 ERA, 21.4% strikeout rate).
Dating back to his first full big league season, in 2018, Buehler has established himself as a rock in the Dodgers’ rotation and as one of the most talented arms in the National League. He ranks 23rd in the Majors in innings pitched from 2018-22 — even with this year’s glut of missed time — and also ranks seventh in ERA (2.95), 25th in strikeout rate (27%) and 32nd in walk rate (6.2%) amid a field of 152 qualified starting pitchers in that time.
For the time being, Buehler will join both Clayton Kershaw (lower back discomfort) and Dustin May (recovering from 2021 Tommy John surgery) on the injured list. Both May and Kershaw figure to return before the end of the regular season. May recently punched out 10 hitters over five innings in his fifth Triple-A start of the season. He’s built up to 70 pitches. Kershaw, meanwhile, recently underwent an epidural injection and has resumed throwing, though there’s no immediate timetable for him to return to the Major League mound.
With that trio on the shelf, the Dodgers will look to Julio Urias, Tony Gonsolin, Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney and rookie Ryan Pepiot as rotation options — though Pepiot could soon be pushed out by May. Even absent a pair of big-name arms like Kershaw and Buehler, it’s a formidable group thanks to breakout performances from each of Gonsolin (2.24 ERA, 116 1/3 innings pitched), Anderson (2.81 ERA, 128 1/3 innings) and Heaney (1.16 ERA, 32.3% strikeout rate in 31 innings).
Obviously, not being able to pencil Buehler into a hopeful postseason rotation stings, but the group of Urias, Gonsolin and Kershaw is still a formidable top three, with May, Anderson and Heaney all standing as potential playoff starters as well. The broader question for the Dodgers is just what Buehler’s recovery and 2023 outlook will be.
Even in the event that Buehler required Tommy John surgery and would need to miss the majority of the 2023 season — which, to be emphatically clear, has not been indicated or even implied by the team — he’d still be a lock to be tendered a contract. The 2022 campaign was the second of a two-year, $8M deal buying out Buehler’s first two arbitration years. He’ll be arb-eligible four times as a Super Two player, meaning he has two raises to go. Because of this year’s limited workload, he’ll be due only a modest raise on his $4.25M salary, making it a no-brainer for the Dodgers to keep him in the fold.
That said, the extent of Buehler’s recovery period will surely impact the Dodgers’ offseason direction and inform the level of aggression with which they pursue rotation help. The Dodgers currently stand to see Kershaw, Anderson and Heaney all potentially walk as free agents, so they’ll definitely be in the mix for starting pitching help this offseason.