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Walker Buehler won’t return in 2023 as Dodgers’ rotation questions mount

With its pitching staff in flux, Los Angeles had hoped that Buehler — who’s been ramping up in his rehab from Tommy John — would be able to return in time for the postseason.

Walker Buehler of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks on before the game against the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park on June 10, 2022 in San Francisco, California. Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

A Los Angeles Dodgers team that was already facing questions about the status of its starting rotation as the postseason looms was dealt yet another one on Friday, as news broke that All-Star righty Walker Buehler — who’d been ramping up his rehab from last year’s Tommy John surgery as he hoped to return at some point this fall — will not in fact pitch this season.

“My goal since last year has been to return to a major league mound this season,” Buehler says in a statement. “After many conversations with my doctor, the Dodgers’ front office, training staff and my family, we concluded that waiting until next season is the right course of action. I am disappointed that I will not be able to help this team go after a title in the 2023 postseason, but I look forward to returning fully healthy in 2024 and bringing another World Series to L.A.”

Buehler went under the knife last June, and given the usual year-plus timetable for return from Tommy John, a potential 2023 cameo was always aggressive. Still, there had been some encouraging signs of late; the righty made his first rehab appearance last weekend, throwing two scoreless innings for the L.A.’s Triple-A affiliate, and was scheduled to throw another one on Friday after everything reportedly came back clean on his elbow. It’s unclear whether Buehler suffered some sort of setback, but regardless the Dodgers and their medical staff didn’t feel comfortable pushing things.

All of which raises the question: Who will actually pitch for Los Angeles come October? The Dodgers’ rotation has seemingly been in flux all year, with Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin already lost for the year and Noah Syndergaard pitching himself off the team ahead of the trade deadline. Julio Urias was just placed on administrative leave, and it’s looking very unlikely he pitches again this year after a second domestic violence incident. Clayton Kershaw already has one shoulder injury behind him this season and is facing renewed questions about diminished velocity following a rough start in Miami earlier this week.

Name a starter who’s pitched in a big game for the Dodgers over the last few years, and chances are they’re currently unavailable. The most experienced starter on the active roster is Lance Lynn, who just got shelled by the Marlins and has a 6.09 ERA this season (though he’s been better since coming to L.A. in August). After that, the team has been relying on a cavalcade of young arms to help patch holes, from Bobby Miller to Emmet Sheehan to Ryan Pepiot to Gavin Stone. But Stone has struggled mightily in his limited MLB opportunities; Miller and Sheehan, while they’ve shown promise, are rookies set to blow past their previous innings highs; and Pepiot is still ramping up after spending most of this season on the IL. Ryan Yarbrough is also around, but is he really someone you’d give the ball to in Game 3 of an NLDS?

Buehler, even if he weren’t fully stretched out, would’ve been an enormous help. The righty struggled a bit before his injury last season, but he’d already established himself as one of the better pitchers in the Majors. From 2018 to 2021, Buehler posted a 2.82 ERA and a 9.9 K/9 over nearly 600 innings, earning two All-Star nods — and coming up big multiple times in October. Now, though, the Dodgers will be without his talent and expertise as they try to navigate their way through a crowded National League playoff field. The NL Wild Card race may seem like a bit of a slap fight, but the Cubs and, especially, Brewers could pose quite a challenge in the Divisional round. And then, of course, there are the Braves, a team with a historic offense ready to expose any weakness your pitching staff might have.