(Photo Credit: Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports)
For those who are very familiar with the farm system of the Dodgers, they’ll know that there are three different tiers when categorizing the levels of starting pitching talent throughout the organization. The top tier, consisting of young, MLB-ready premium throwers like Julio Urias, Jose De Leon, Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart, sets the standard across baseball. The intermediate tier features names like Trevor Oaks, Chase De Jong, Carlos Frias and Scott Barlow — all pitchers considered to be right on the fringe, but could probably assume No. 5 big league spots for almost any team in the league. Then there’s the third tier, which is made up of future stars like Yadier Alvarez, Mitchell White, Josh Sborz, Imani Abdullah and Andrew Sopko. This lower tier puts an exclamation point on how strong and incredibly deep the Dodgers’ minor league system has actually become.
Yet perhaps one of the more intriguing throwers in the system is 22-year-old righty Walker Buehler. The Kentucky native can crank up his four-seam to 98, miss bats with his plus-plus slider and curve, and fool the best of hitters with his high quality changeup. Most importantly, with the blink of an eye, Buehler quite certainly has the ability to elevate to the Dodgers’ top pitching tier, and could very well be considered one of those “untouchable” prospects in the very near future.
After Buehler led Vanderbilt to the 2014 College World Series Championship and starred with the U.S. collegiate national team, he entered 2015 as the top-rated prospect on the Commodores. He probably would have been a top-five pick in the 2015 draft, but fell to the 24th overall pick amidst reports that he required Tommy John surgery, which he later had that August.
A little over one year from the date of his surgery, however, Buehler took the mound again for the Arizona League Dodgers. He threw two innings, striking out three and earning a trip to Low-A Great Lakes during the club’s 2016 playoff run.
Moments after his return to the bump, Buehler told reporters that he felt great.
“Since the surgery, I’m actually throwing a bit harder. I hit 98 the other day,” Buehler said. “But it feels different. If you watched me throw before the surgery and after, you wouldn’t notice a difference. The biggest challenge is mental.”
The original recovery plan was set at 15-18 months, but team officials for the Dodgers have been greatly pleased with his accelerated progress.
“Walker Buehler’s going to be ready to throw regularly next year. He’s almost like a pick this year. We feel good about his recovery, his rehab and where he’s at in the process,” scouting director Billy Gasparino said late last summer. “Everything’s looked good. Velocity, arm action, delivery. We’re having to more slow him down than anything else.”
At his young age, Buehler has already drawn comparisons to Zack Greinke for his build and diverse repertoire of pitches. Many scouts project him to ultimately have the ceiling of a No. 2 major league starter.
All signs are pointing to Buehler beginning his 2017 campaign with a few appearances for the Loons before being quickly ushered to High-A Rancho Cucamonga. Depending on his progressions and development, it’s probably safe to guess that he’ll earn a promotion to Double-A Tulsa before the end of the year.
Considering Buehler’s talent level, work ethic and perseverance, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that he could make his MLB debut sometime during the 2018 season.