'Plenty of time.' Why the Dodgers aren't rushing Walker Buehler's comeback

Walker Buehler didn’t reach the finish line of his rehab from Tommy John surgery last year. But he at least seemed to be charging down the final stretch.

Buehler began a throwing program before the end of last spring, about six months after his August 2022 elbow procedure. By the operation’s anniversary date, he was already throwing bullpens and facing hitters in live batting practice.

When Buehler began a minor-league rehab assignment in early September, pitching two perfect innings in triple-A Oklahoma City, there was faint hope he might even return before season’s end.

“We were kind of at the end of it,” Buehler recalled of his rehab process, and how close he got to its completion last year.

The only problem?

“I just wasn’t bouncing back great,” Buehler said.

So, before he could take further steps, the two-time All-Star and former ace of the Dodgers rotation was shut down for the rest of the campaign.

And now, a couple weeks into this year’s spring camp, his exact timetable to return remains unclear.

“I don’t want to put pressure on the training staff or Walker,” manager Dave Roberts said. “When he gets into the regular routine of facing hitters, extending [his outings], getting some length, then I think it will be more clear to project. But right now, I don’t even know time to return.”

It isn’t an unexpected development.

Throughout the winter, the Dodgers had hinted at the idea of delaying Buehler’s start to the season, hoping to manage the right-hander’s innings total and keep him fresh for a potential October run.

Buehler himself isn’t rushing the process, either, especially as he tries to become one of only a handful of MLB pitchers to successfully recover from a second Tommy John surgery (Buehler first had his first operation shortly after being drafted by the Dodgers in 2015).

“We’ve just left ourselves a lot of leeway to build up however I need to,” Buehler said. “I’ve got plenty of time. … I just need to get to a spot where I’m not hampering our team from an innings perspective, to be on the roster and be part of the rotation.”

The Dodgers have already ruled out Buehler from being available by opening day. Roberts added this week that he is unlikely to pitch in any Cactus League games (though Buehler said he still hopes to “sneak into some at the end” of spring).

That means, barring a change of plans, Buehler probably won’t start building up innings until closer to when the regular season begins.

From there, he estimated it could take about a month to stretch out to the four or five innings of stamina he would need to rejoin the rotation. And that’s assuming his rehab doesn’t encounter any other setbacks.

“With these surgeries, you never know how you’re gonna feel and when you’re gonna be ready to jump an inning or whatever,” Buehler said. “There’s just some variables.”

Thus, in a perfect world, Buehler might not be back with the Dodgers until late April or, more likely, some time in May at the earliest. In a worst-case scenario, it could be even longer than that.

“We’re excited to get him back out there,” general manager Brandon Gomes said. “But we’re also making sure that we’re balancing his workload, and being able to [keep him] available and at his peak for the stretch run.”

It all begs a question that some fans have been asking this spring, wondering how Buehler could have gotten as close as he did to returning last year, only to end up missing even more extended time this upcoming season.

Posed that question last week, pitching coach Mark Prior offered a simple answer.

“I don’t think, at least from my perspective, he ever actually completed that rehab,” Prior said. “So it’s building him back up to get him to the point where he was at the end of [last year]. Finish and complete the rehab. And then make sure he’s ready to throw at this level.”

In other words, Buehler is having to retrace some of his old rehab steps — like completing an offseason throwing program, refining his mechanics in bullpen sessions and seeing how well his arm bounces back between outings this go around.

“It’s not necessarily about checking [new] boxes,” Buehler said. “It’s making sure none of them get unchecked, I guess.”

The good news for Buehler and the Dodgers: To this point, no such regression has happened.

Buehler said his arm felt good during the offseason, benefiting from the extra rest he got from his September reset.

Gomes recalled one flat-ground throwing session at Dodger Stadium last month in which — in stark contrast to Buehler’s inconsistent performances near the end of last season — the ball was zipping out of the former Cy Young Award contender’s hand.

“Last year watching Walker … it was like OK, maybe when he gets into live BPs, maybe when he gets into games, we’ll see that next level. And that never really happened,” Gomes said. “I get to watch him six weeks ago throw a flat ground at Dodger Stadium and I was like, ‘OK, that’s Walker Buehler.’ His delivery, his body, the confidence in how he’s feeling overall, was all really positive.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been a linear progression from the 29-year-old veteran, who will be a free agent at the end of the year.

Buehler is only up to about 92 mph with his fastball in his bullpen sessions, Roberts said; something the manager insisted is “a good spot for middle of February,” but still several ticks away from his pre-injury averages.

The consistency of Buehler’s command and execution also aren’t back to his old peak levels, Roberts said — though, again, the manager noted he isn’t “expected to be right now.”

“The throw, how it looks intensity-wise, the bounce-back, he’s in a great spot,” Roberts said. “I just don’t know exactly what that means as far as when he takes the mound in a real ballgame. I don’t know yet.”

So, for now, Buehler waits, limited thus far to throwing long-toss games of catch and routine bullpen sessions.

“We’re building the house from the foundation up,” Gomes said.

The timeline for completion, however, still seems to be somewhat up in the air.

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