Walker Buehler's Behind: How Concerned Should Dodgers Be?

Walker Buehler's Behind: How Concerned Should Dodgers Be?
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Walker Buehler won’t be fully stretched out when the 2020 season starts. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts shared that news on a Zoom call with the media on Tuesday.

“Certain other guys threw throughout quarantine,” Roberts said. “I think, with Walker, he took some time off with the uncertainty, and that was his decision, and [pitching coach] Mark [Prior] was in tune with it. So . . . the build-up period for Walker is just going to take a little bit longer.”

If the Dodgers had a full 162-game season ahead of them, Buehler being slightly behind wouldn’t be a big deal. He’s not hurt. He likely will still start the fourth or fifth game of the season, he’ll continue to stretch out during his first few starts, and could be at full capacity as early as his third turn in the rotation. In a season of 30-plus starts, that’s easily forgotten. However, it’s unlikely that any pitcher is going to make more than 12 starts in the abbreviated 60-game season, so being on a limited pitch count for three of them would affect a full quarter of the Dodgers’ ace’s season.

Dodgers fans shouldn’t be upset with Buehler over his inaction during quarantine. His is a 25-year-old arm that has already had one Tommy John surgery. Erring on the side of rest was the right thing for him to do given the uncertainty about when or if there would be a 2020 season (uncertainty that continues to linger as the pandemic thrives in the United States, even though the arrival of Opening Day less than a week from now seems more likely than not). As Roberts was careful to point out, Buehler kept an open line of communication with his pitching coach and the organization. Buehler did nothing wrong here.

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Still, this news does add another layer of concern about the coming season for the Dodgers, the first being the fact that the smaller sample of games makes it more likely that their reign atop the division could be interrupted by a lesser team. Roberts expects that Buehler will throw two-plus innings of live BP this week followed by a start in an exhibition game next week. That would seem to put him on pace for, in Roberts’ estimation, “three to four innings” in his first regular-season start. There’s no reason to be concerned about the quality of Buehler’s performance in his early starts, but the quantity could have a reverberating effect on the rest of the pitching staff.

The abbreviated 2020 season will consist of 60 games over a span of just 67 days. From July 28 through August 30, the Dodgers have just two off-days. That, combined with having to cover for Buehler’s short early starts, could place a significant strain on a bullpen that was the team’s weakest element to begin with, and which had its top two arms, closer Kenley Jansen and set-up man Pedro Báez, report late to camp, the former after contracting and then recovering from COVID-19.

Anticipating such concerns, Major League Baseball expanded Opening Day rosters to 30 players. The Dodgers intend to take full advantage of that, likely carrying 11 relievers to start the season, one of whom could be used as a sort of tandem starter with Buehler the first few times around, perhaps a good opportunity for rotation prospect Dustin May. Two weeks in, however, they’ll have to trim down to 28 men, and two weeks after that they’ll have to get down to 26 men. By then, Buehler should be fully stretched out, but fatigue can compound, and injury or poor performance elsewhere in the rotation, or in the bullpen itself, could perpetuate the strain as rosters begin to shrink.

Fortunately, the Dodgers’ other starters appear to be in good position to start the season. Opening Day starter Clayton Kershaw, Ross Stripling and returned lefty Alex Wood are all fully stretched out, and Julio Urías is not far behind those three. With Buehler, those four should comprise the Opening Day rotation, which Roberts said will be a five-man unit, not six.

Here, the 60-day schedule may be a benefit. Over the offseason, the Dodgers lost two of the four pitchers who exceeded 91 innings pitched for them last year (Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenta Maeda), with a third, Buehler, now behind schedule, and the fourth, Kershaw, in clear decline (albeit from an absurd height). Of the two pitchers acquired to replace Ryu and Maeda, one, David Price, has opted out of the season, and the other, Wood, was healthy enough for just seven starts last year. A 162-game schedule would reduce the concern about Buehler’s tardiness, but heighten the concern about durability of the rotation as a whole. The shortened season increases the concern about Buehler’s impact on the staff, but lessons the concern about the durability of the rest, particularly with May and Tony Gonsolin both ready to step in.

Ultimately, Buehler’s situation remains only a minor concern, but the shortened season has the potential to magnify even the most minor of setbacks. When everything else gets small, small things take on greater significance.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.