Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler will begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Oklahoma City on Sunday, with Alden González of ESPN among those to relay word from manager Dave Roberts. The righty will make at least three rehab appearances before rejoining the big league club, the first of which will be around one or two innings.
Buehler, 29, is a potential difference-maker down the stretch for the Dodgers, both because of his previous levels of excellence and the challenges the club has faced in the rotation this year. From Buehler’s debut in 2017 through 12 starts last year, he owns a career earned run average of 3.02 in 638 1/3 innings. He struck out 27% of batters faced in that time while walking just 6.3% and keeping the ball on the ground at a 45.4% rate.
Unfortunately, he required Tommy John surgery in August of last year, putting him on the shelf for the remainder of that campaign. It also was fair to wonder if he would be able to return at any point in 2023, given that the recovery period from that procedure usually pushes towards the vicinity of 14 months. However, he has said this year that he would target a return in September, which seems to still be on the table.
Roberts said Buehler returning as a reliever is not an option, so it seems the plan is for him to return as a starter, though he might not have enough time to be fully ramped up at first. His rehab will start with one to two innings, as mentioned, presumably building his pitch count gradually over a few more outings. He could then return to the big leagues in mid to late September, though perhaps still requiring some kind of bulk pitcher to come in behind him.
Even with some limitations, the Dodgers would surely be thrilled with whatever Buehler can provide. Their rotation has lost both Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin to season-ending surgeries, while Michael Grove is also on the injured list. They acquired Lance Lynn at the deadline and tried to add Eduardo Rodriguez as well, though he used his no-trade clause to block the deal and stay with the Tigers.
They currently have Lynn, Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urías and Bobby Miller in four spots, with Ryan Yarbrough taking on bulk innings out of the bullpen. Younger pitchers like Emmet Sheehan, Ryan Pepiot and Gavin Stone are on the 40-man and have been bouncing on and off the active roster as needed.
The club is a lock to make the playoffs, as they have a 83-50 record and a 13.5-game lead in the National League West. That puts them nine games ahead of the Central-leading Brewers, making a first-round bye also a strong possibility. That should give them some flexibility with the remainder of their schedule to get a look at Buehler, who could jump into the postseason rotation if all goes according to plan in the next few weeks. Whether he’s still limited to short outings or has been fully stretched out by that point will be determined in the weeks to come. In 79 2/3 postseason innings for his career, he has a 2.94 ERA.
Returning before season’s end would also be good for Buehler personally. He is set to reach free agency after 2024, meaning he would surely love to finish this year strong before going into an important platform season.