Dodgers star hurler Walker Buehler underwent Tommy John surgery and a repair to his flexor tendon this afternoon, according to announcements from the team and Buehler himself (h/t to Fabian Ardaya of the Athletic). The club had already announced that Buehler would undergo an elbow procedure that would end his 2022 season, although it hadn’t been clear whether he’d require a complete UCL reconstruction.
While the team has not yet provided a specific timetable on Buehler’s recovery, the revelation comes as a brutal blow. A Tommy John procedure will obviously cost him far more than the remainder of this season. It’s now hard to envision him returning at any point in 2023. Tommy John recoveries often take upwards of 14 months, and Buehler’s rehab process only figures to take longer considering his personal history.
The righty also underwent Tommy John not long after being selected in the first round of the 2015 draft. He lost the remainder of that season and virtually all of the following year recovering, making just three brief appearances late during his first full pro campaign. He’ll now be faced with a second extended rehab process.
In between the surgeries, Buehler has established himself as one of the sport’s best arms. The Vanderbilt product has a 3.02 ERA in 638 1/3 MLB innings, striking out a quality 27% of batters faced against a meager 6.3% walk percentage. He posted an ERA of 3.44 or lower each season between 2018-21, earning a pair of All-Star nods in the process. Buehler picked up a fourth place finish in NL Cy Young balloting last year — his highest finish to date — after eclipsing 200 innings with a sparkling 2.47 ERA.
The 2022 season hadn’t been Buehler’s best, as he saw his strikeout rate fall to a personal-worst 21.2% rate through 12 starts. Not coincidentally, he allowed more than four earned runs per nine innings for the first time in his big league career, with opponents bizarrely teeing off on a fastball that had previously been one of his better offerings. Buehler’s velocity remained strong, with his fastball checking in at its customary 95 MPH range, and any efforts to get the pitch’s spin and overall effectiveness back on track were put aside when he left an early June outing with elbow discomfort. That was quickly revealed to be a flexor strain, and the team announced last week that he’d need to undergo surgery after rehab efforts proved unsuccessful.
Relative down year notwithstanding, Buehler would certainly have had a key role on next year’s staff had he been healthy. Now that he’s seemingly unlikely to factor into the mix at any point, the Dodgers figure to aggressively target rotation help during the upcoming offseason. Clayton Kershaw will be a free agent after signing a one-year deal last winter. The club would no doubt welcome him back if Kershaw wants to return, but it remains to be seen how the future Hall of Famer will choose to proceed. The Dodgers will also see free agent pickups Andrew Heaney and Tyler Anderson return to the open market.
Julio Urías is one of the sport’s top pitchers, and he’ll be arbitration-eligible for a final time next year. The Dodgers recently welcomed back flamethrowing Dustin May from a Tommy John rehab of his own, while Tony Gonsolin has carried over his smaller-sample excellence through a career-high 22 starts this season. That’s three rotation spots accounted for, and young hurlers like Ryan Pepiot, Gavin Stone and Bobby Miller could be ready for key roles relatively early in the year. There are still plenty of in-house options, but the Dodgers have aggressively stockpiled pitching depth in recent offseasons. Between efforts to re-sign one or more of Kershaw, Anderson and Heaney plus pursuits of external free agents, the Dodgers are likely to be active in adding to their strong collection of young in-house arms.
Buehler will remain on the 60-day injured list during the seasons, although he’ll need to occupy a spot on the 40-man roster over the winter. He’ll finish this season with more than four years of service time and be in line for a salary boost relative to this season’s $4.25MM figure via arbitration. Buehler is arb-eligible twice more, so the Dodgers are likely to tender him a contract and pay next year’s salary with an eye towards getting him back on the mound for the 2024 campaign.