Dodgers decide to delay Walker Buehler's start to season

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Walker Buehler throws to the plate during the first inning.

As eager as Walker Buehler is to return from his second Tommy John surgery, the erstwhile Dodgers ace will have to wait at least an extra month to make his first regular-season start since June 10, 2022.

The Dodgers — with Buehler’s blessing — have decided to delay the veteran right-hander’s start to the season in order to limit his workload and increase the chances of him being fresh in October.

General manager Brandon Gomes wouldn’t go into specific numbers, but Buehler is expected to be limited to 150-175 innings and 24-27 starts. In his last full regular season, he threw 207 ⅔ innings over 33 starts in 2021.

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“I think there's a little bit of art to it, a little bit of science to it, in terms of how fast I can build up,” Buehler said at Saturday’s fanfest event. “I’m sure I’ll make some rehab starts and hopefully get into the rotation in the early part of the year, and then we’ll kind of go from there.

“We have a lot of depth, a lot of talent. Since I've been here, it's never been a one-man show, and it's not going to be this year, either, so I don't feel this crazy burden to throw 220 innings or anything like that. But I want to be really good when I play, and I want to play a good amount.”

The Dodgers have more than enough depth to weather Buehler’s late start and ease the workloads of new starters Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who pitched once a week in Japan, Tyler Glasnow, who has never thrown more than 120 innings in his eight big league seasons, and James Paxton, who has made only 20 starts in the last three seasons.

Young right-handers Emmet Sheehan, Gavin Stone, Michael Grove, Kyle Hurt and Landon Knack and left-hander Ryan Yarbrough will be available to fill out an early-season rotation that will feature Yamamoto, Glasnow, Bobby Miller and Paxton.

“I don’t think anyone has a timeline, but it’s fair to say it’s going to be a late start for the season for Walker,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But the rehab work looks great, and I expect Walker to have a heck of a year.”

Buehler, 29, has clearly been working hard in the weight room. He’s added about 20 pounds of muscle that he hopes will help him better withstand the rigors of the season.

“I put on some good weight,” said Buehler, who had his first major elbow surgery after he was drafted in the first round out of Vanderbilt in 2015. “My elbow keeps snapping, man, so I had to put a little weight around it and try to protect it a little bit.”

Ohtani rehab report

While Shohei Ohtani said he is “very confident” he will be ready to serve as the team’s designated hitter for the March 20-21 season-opening series against San Diego in Seoul, the two-way star has not begun the throwing part of his rehabilitation from a second Tommy John surgery last Sept. 19.

“We haven't sat down and mapped that out just yet,” Gomes said of the pitching phase of Ohtani’s rehab. “Right now, we're focused on the hitting portion of it. Obviously, throwing will be a main part of it at some point, but we haven't spent a ton of time on it yet.”

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani talks the media during DodgerFest on Feb. 3, 2024 in Los Angeles.
Shohei Ohtani, right, speaks to the media during the Dodgers' fanfest event Saturday at Dodger Stadium. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

When Ohtani suffered his first major elbow injury with the Angels in 2018, he had surgery in early October and missed the first month of the 2019 season. But once he returned on May 7, his pitching rehab didn’t interfere much with his hitting.

After a slow start in which he hit .250 with a .692 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, three homers and 13 RBIs in 20 May games, Ohtani hit .340 with a 1.091 OPS, nine homers and 22 RBIs in 27 June games. He finished the season with a .286 average, .848 OPS, 18 homers and 62 RBIs in 106 games.

“I’m going to start my throwing program when I get to Arizona and go from there,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “We haven’t scheduled anything like live [batting practices sessions]. We’re going to play it by ear through camp. The main focus will be on hitting, and we’re going to try to ease into the pitching program throughout the year.”

Sour taste remains

A $1.2-billion winter spending spree that netted Ohtani, Yamamoto, Glasnow and others and has positioned the Dodgers as World Series favorites didn’t erase the playoff disappointment of last October, when the heavily favored 100-win Dodgers were swept by the 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-game National League division series.

“I mean, it’s still there,” third baseman Max Muncy said. “There’s no way around it. We sucked. We really kind of blew it. I’m not trying to take anything away from the Diamondbacks — they played very well, and hats off to them — but we blew it. When something like that happens, it sticks with you for a while.”

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The Dodgers were outscored 19-6 in the series and their three starting pitchers — Clayton Kershaw, Miller and Lance Lynn — were rocked for 13 earned runs and 16 hits, including five homers, in 4 ⅔ innings. A Dodgers offense that ranked second in baseball with 906 runs and a .795 OPS hit .177 (17 for 96) with four extra-base hits.

“I feel like you can have a dartboard and throw a dart and it would land on something that went wrong,” Muncy said. “We didn’t hit. We didn’t score. We didn’t pitch. Everything went wrong.”

Short hops

Top pitching prospect Nick Frasso, who went 4-6 with a 3.77 ERA in 25 starts for double-A Tulsa and triple-A Oklahoma City last season, underwent minor labrum surgery in November, and the 25-year-old right-hander will miss most, if not all, of the 2024 season. “His rehab has gone well,” Gomes said, “but he’s so young and talented, we’re not gonna take any risks in pushing him if he’s not ready.” … The Dodgers signed reliever Dinelson Lamet, who is 17-24 with a 4.66 ERA in parts of six seasons with San Diego, Colorado and Boston, to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.