By Nick Selbe
He has pitched the most postseason innings since his playoff debut in 2018. He won’t be easily replaced.
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The Dodgers entered Monday with a .699 winning percentage and a 16-game lead in their division with 49 left to play. But despite their 4–0 win over the Brewers, to improve to 20–4 since the All-Star Break, they closed the day with more questions about their World Series prospects than should ever be expected for a team on pace to win 113 games.
The dampened mood came courtesy of the team’s announcement that two-time All-Star starting pitcher Walker Buehler would be undergoing season-ending elbow surgery later this month. Buehler hadn’t pitched since June 10 but was expected to return at some point before the end of the regular season and play a key role in the playoffs. Now, those plans are being scrapped, with the pitching-needy Dodgers forced to evaluate their backup options.
Calling a team with as many resources—and one that’s had as much success—as the Dodgers “needy” of anything seems farcical, but such is the position the team finds itself in. There is little concern that anything will deny Los Angeles its ninth National League West crown in 10 years, but avoiding another October letdown becomes considerably more difficult without Buehler.
Though he hasn’t set foot on a mound in two months, Buehler has been as dependent a playoff pitcher the team has had during his career. Over the last four years, no player in the league has pitched more postseason innings than Buehler (79 ⅔). He’s led Los Angeles in postseason starts in each of the past three years, and for his career he owns a 2.94 ERA in 15 playoff starts, the best mark of any current Dodgers pitcher since he became a regular starter. The 28-year-old gave up three earned runs or fewer in 12 of those outings. He has a 2.45 ERA across five elimination games, with the Dodgers winning three of them. Buehler gave up one run or fewer in four of those games.
It’s also worth noting that this will be the second surgery on his pitching elbow, as he underwent Tommy John surgery shortly after getting drafted in 2015. The Dodgers did not specify whether this latest trip under the knife was the same procedure, but it’s clearly not an ideal injury pattern, and raises some concerns about Buehler in the long-term.
Hindsight is 20/20, but Buehler’s being out makes the Dodgers’ inability or unwillingness to acquire a starting pitcher at the trade deadline that much more glaring. The team got Andrew Heaney back from the injured list the day before the deadline, and had counted on Buehler and fellow injured righthander Dustin May to make their returns sometime in the coming weeks, which surely contributed to the feeling that trading for a big-league starter was not as big a priority as it might appear now. Heaney has been effective in three starts since being activated off the IL, but has yet to throw five innings or more than 81 pitches. May has made six rehab starts in the minors, and his return to the big leagues appears imminent.
Even if Heaney and May progress as expected, that still leaves the Dodgers’ rotation short on reliable, proven options. Clayton Kershaw would certainly qualify as such, but lower back pain sent him to the IL two days after the deadline, with no clear timetable yet on his return. That leaves Julio Urías, Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson as the trio of proven, healthy starters currently operating at full strength—a good group, certainly, but one with just nine career postseason starts (with a 5.15 ERA in such games) between them.
Had the Dodgers known that Buehler would not be available for the postseason, would they have behaved differently at the deadline? Plenty of impact arms were moved—Luis Castillo, Frankie Montas, Noah Syndergaard and Tyler Mahle, to name a few—and the team presumably was interested in at least some of them. It’s interesting that a front office that just a year ago swung a blockbuster deal to acquire Max Scherzer and Trea Turner for the stretch run opted to play things extremely conservatively this time around, adding only the struggling Joey Gallo and relief pitcher Chris Martin to the big-league roster.
Is this all a bit of an overreaction? After all, the Dodgers have gone 42–13 since Buehler went down, and the rotation has an MLB-best 2.77 ERA during that span. For an organization that’s built enough depth to withstand this exact situation, not getting both Buehler and May back for the stretch run qualifies as a first-world problem. And given how teams lean more heavily on their bullpens during the playoffs, a thin rotation isn’t as significant of a problem as it once was—though bullpen reliability could be a whole different issue for Los Angeles if Craig Kimbrel continues his inconsistent ways.
Trying to poke holes in a potentially historically great team can feel like a fool’s errand. But it feels like a safe assumption that a normally aggressive front office opted to stand pat and not go after a more proven starter because it had planned on Buehler’s being back soon. Now, the challenge becomes how the team can move forward going off-script.
All of the unknowns looming over the Dodgers’ rotation—Kershaw’s back, May’s form and Heaney’s stamina—combined with Buehler’s shutdown will not make one bit of difference from now through the end of September, as their division lead is simply too big. Come October, though, the answers to the remaining questions will likely determine whether this postseason ends with another premature exit for Los Angeles or the franchise’s second title in three years.
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