How Will the Dodgers Replace Walker Buehler in 2022?
With Walker Buehler going on the IL, what does the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation look like going forward?
The Los Angeles Dodgers rotation has not looked like the group that Just Baseball ranked as the second-best quintet entering the 2022 season.
While Dodgers starters have amassed the sixth-most fWAR and the lowest ERA in the majors, it’s been breakthrough performers Tyler Anderson and Tony Gonsolin at the forefront of that success. Clayton Kershaw and Andrew Heaney have been hurt and Walker Buehler and Julio Urias have not quite been the same pitchers we saw in 2021.
Now to add some more uncertainty into the mix, Buehler was placed on the injured list Saturday with a flexor tendon strain, shutting him down for throwing for 6-8 weeks. Buehler also underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur from his pitching elbow on Monday, since the timetable for recovery on the surgery aligned with the timetable for his flexor tendon injury.
They have set a timeline of return now at 10-12 weeks, as Buehler likely won’t be back on the mound at Chavez Ravine until September at the earliest.
While it’s true that Buehler hasn’t been the Cy Young contender from years past — pitching to a 4.02 ERA with the lowest average fastball velocity of his career (95.4 mph) and the lowest strikeout rate of his career (21.2%) — he has still been a steady enough presence to make it through 65 innings and pick up six wins.
Kershaw made his return on Saturday, throwing four innings and 71 pitches against the Giants. While the Dodgers held things together during his month-absence, going without Buehler for at least two months will be another challenge altogether.
Anderson and Gonsolin lead all Dodgers pitchers in fWAR so far in 2022 with 1.4 apiece. However, has the duo overperformed?
Gonsolin has the lowest ERA in MLB (1.42) but has a 3.11 FIP and 2.55 xERA, while Anderson’s actual results line up a bit more with his expected stats. Urias falls into the category of someone that’s overperformed as well. He has a 2.80 ERA, with a 4.57 FIP and 3.36 ERA.
So with no Buehler, a returning Kershaw, and three pitchers who may not be able to maintain their current level, the question becomes what will the Dodgers rotation look like through the dog days of summer and will they make a move to solidify their starting five?
Internal Option to Replace Buehler
For now, Andrew Heaney’s return could play a role in what direction the Dodgers decide to go.
The 31-year-old lefty has been making minor league rehab starts since the beginning of June. In three starts and 12.1 innings, Heaney has struck out 19 hitters while only walking one and giving up six hits.
Heaney is expected to make his return to the big league club this weekend, where he was just as dominant as he was during his rehab stint. In his first two starts as a Dodger, he didn’t allow a run through 10.1 innings while striking out 16.
If Heaney returns and continues to pitch at the level he’s established in 2022, the Dodgers may choose to roll with Kershaw, Anderson, Gonsolin, Urias and Heaney to carry the load until they get Buehler and Dustin May back — Dave Roberts suggested last month that May could be looking at an August return.
However, if some of the pitchers’ luck turns and Heaney struggles upon his return, the Dodgers may also choose to look at their minor league system before making a trade.
Mitch White and Ryan Pepiot have combined to make seven starts already this season. Both have sub-4.00 ERAs in 37 innings. White is more likely to be a viable option as Pepiot has struggled with walks (21.2% walk rate) and is currently in Triple-A.
In fact, Andrew Friedman confirmed to the Orange County Register’s Bill Plunkett that the team will go forward with White as the sixth man in the rotation as they focus on internal improvements to fill the void left by Buehler’s injury.
With all that said, if the Dodgers do turn to the trade market, who are some potential targets?
Trade Targets to Bolster Rotation
Martin Perez has the eighth-highest fWAR of all starters in MLB and, based on his lack of track record, may not cost a ton to acquire. With a 2.18 ERA, Perez has a career-low home run rate this year, only allowing 0.24 HR/9.
Perez also only signed a one-year deal this offseason, meaning that whoever tries to trade for him will have less of a price to pay than some of the other starters that could be available.
Tyler Mahle is another arm that may be on the block. The Cincinnati Reds right-hander ranks 10th among starters in fWAR and has underperformed what the expected stats tell us about him this year.
Mahle has a 4.46 ERA, 3.24 xERA and 3.30 FIP so far this year. His fastball — which he has thrown 50.3% of the time this season — has also been very good. It only allows a .179 average against and has a 30.3% whiff rate. He also comes with one year of control after 2022, attaching some more value to the 27-year-old.
The final name that could be a solid addition to Los Angeles’ staff is Frankie Montas. The A’s starter may be the most likely name to be moved this season after he survived Oakland’s offseason firesale.
Montas is 17th among MLB starters in fWAR and has a 3.40 ERA. Montas has four pitches that he uses more than 15% of the time. His fastball, splitter and slider have all been effective, holding hitters to a sub .200 batting average, while his sinker has not been so great, allowing a .319 average and .500 slugging percentage.
The next two months without Buehler will be their first time without Kershaw’s heir-apparent since a four-game rehab stint in 2018, leaving a new group of arms to try and keep Los Angeles atop the AL West standings. The Dodgers certainly don’t have to look outside the organization to fill that void, but also have plenty of prospect capital to make any deal if they deem it necessary.
All stats courtesy FanGraphs and from before play on June 15th