It was only last week when, as he was asked during a news conference about what it would take for his team to make a genuine championship push this year, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pointed to production at the top of the rotation as one of the club’s biggest keys.
Roberts knew that in order to be a true contender, the Dodgers needed to have a couple arms capable of pitching not only dominantly, but deep into games on a consistent basis.
And up until the fourth inning on Friday night, the team was still counting on Walker Buehler to be a central part in that equation.
Now, Buehler’s status for the rest of the season is uncertain after he suffered a flexor tendon strain in his elbow. He won’t pick up a baseball again for six to eight weeks. It will be even longer until he’s back on the mound.
The Dodgers believe Buehler can return before the end of the season. And although he was struggling even before the injury, the team is hopeful he will still be a factor in their pursuit of a title.
But they must also prepare for the reality of missing him for at least a couple months, and the possibility of injury could impact his performance even if he returns for the stretch run.
“It’s just going to have to be a collective effort,” Roberts said. “We’re better with Walker, his innings, performance, but it’s just got to be a group effort. Guys got to do just a little bit more. “
In the wake of Buehler’s injury, here are four ways the Dodgers can cope with his absence.
‘Loosen the reins’ on Julio Urías:
Even before his impressive six-inning, two-run, 10-strikeout performance against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, Julio Urías had seemed central to the Dodgers’ plan to deal with Buehler’s loss.
The left-hander is a former 20-game winner and has played crucial roles on past playoff teams. However, the club’s use of him – both in the regular season and playoffs – hasn’t always mirrored that of a typical ace, his workloads often tightly managed and his role typically shifting come October.
Now, however, the Dodgers might have to rely on him in new and ever-expanding ways.
“I think Julio is a guy that we got to continue to loosen the reins on,” Roberts said, adding that while he’ll be mindful of keeping the 25-year-old healthy, “ideally for him to take down 24, 25 hitters every start, that would be certainly optimal. If I had to push him a little bit more than that, great. ”
Despite a 2.80 ERA this season, Urías’ hasn’t been perfect. He has given up a team-high 12 home runs. His strikeout rate and fastball velocity are down from last year. In most of his starts, he’s been good, but not great.
Yet, his track record, skillset and potential make him perhaps the most natural option to inherit a bigger role while Buehler is away.
“I just have to stick to my routine,” he said through an interpreter Sunday, “and do what I need to do to be prepared every fifth day.”
Rely on rest of the rotation:
Urías won’t be the only one left to pick up the slack.
With the rotation thinned out, the Dodgers will need each of their other starters to stay healthy and consistent over the next few months – starting with their future Hall of Fame left-hander.
After missing more than a month with a back injury, Clayton Kershaw looked solid Saturday in his return. He gave up two runs in four innings. He battled through some rust while rebuilding arm stamina. And he felt the outing was a positive step in his process to try and rediscover the vintage form he displayed at the start of the season.
“For the first one,” he said, “I thought it was all right.”
There are other names to watch as well.
Tony Gonsolin has been the Dodgers’ best starter this season, currently 7-0 with a 1.58 ERA. While Roberts said the team is being mindful of Gonsolin’s workload – he hasn’t pitched a full season since 2019 – his improving performance has thus far seemed sustainable, priming him for a potentially increased role as the season goes on.
The team is also hoping to get Andrew Heaney back as soon as Sunday, after suffering a shoulder injury in April.
With Tyler Anderson in the fold, as well, it gives the Dodgers an experienced, dependable five-man rotation – one they are hoping will stay intact over the course of the summer.
“There’s obviously a trickle down effect on your other starters and on your bullpen guys,” pitching coach Mark Prior said.
Manage the bullpen:
Another group Prior emphasized while discussing Buehler’s injury is the bullpen.
Though the group ranks top 10 in the majors in ERA and WHIP, it has been struggling lately to overcome its own rash of injuries, with important right-handers Blake Treinen and Tommy Kahnle both on the 60-day injured list.
Over the last 13 games, Dodgers relievers have a 5.11 ERA (seventh-highest in the majors during that stretch) and as many losses as saves (three each).
Closer Craig Kimbrel has been inconsistent. So have many of those pitching in front of him. Of the nine Dodger relievers with at least 10 appearances, only three (Evan Phillips, Daniel Hudson and Yency Almonte) have sub-3.00 ERAs or sub-1.00 WHIPs.
Roberts pointed to a rise in walks and execution mistakes as the culprits for the recent dropoff. Prior pointed out the heavy workload of the group during a busy stretch of the schedule, as well.
“You got to be careful with them and their workload so that their stuff does not start pulling back and you do not start putting them in any kind of jeopardy workload,” Prior said.
But moving forward, the team will need more from its backend arms, especially once MLB’s new roster rule limiting the number of pitchers a team can have to 13 goes into effect on June 20.
Start looking for trades:
Even before Buehler’s injury, the Dodgers seemed like a candidate to pursue pitching help leading up to this year trade deadline on Aug. 2.
Now, they might be one of the most obvious teams in need of external reinforcements on the mound.
While Roberts said he likes his current group, he also acknowledged that “losing Walker kind of widens the net, as far as potential pieces” the club could look at trying to add over the next two months.
“Our guys: [in] baseball operations are always looking for ways to make our club better, ”he added.
Replicating the impact move they made last year by trading for three-time Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer, however, might not be feasible this time around.
There are a couple big names that the Dodgers have been linked to since the offseason, such as Cincinnati Reds right-hander Luis Castillo (who is 2-4 with a 3.23 ERA this year) and Oakland A’s right-hander Frankie Montas (3- 6, 3.40 ERA), who are both under team control through the end of next year.
But unlike last year, when the Dodgers found a way to replace Trevor Bauer on the fly, there doesn’t seem to be many superstar pitchers available on this summer’s trade market.
The Dodgers could still look for ways to bolster the bullpen, or add depth to a pitching staff that is still expecting to get injured pitchers such as Dustin May and Danny Duffy back later this year.
But one big trade alone might not be enough to make up for a long-term loss of Buehler.
“Guys have got to step up and take on different roles or leverage or whatever it might be,” Roberts said. “But we’re prepared for that.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.