When the Dodgers selected (then) 20-year-old Walker Buehler in the first round of the 2015 MLB First-Year Player Draft out of Vanderbilt University, they did so knowing that there was a good chance that the Crestview Hills, Kentucky native might require Tommy John surgery.
“It was no certain thing when we drafted him that he would need [surgery]” Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi told reporters during an August 8, 2015 interview.
But before the Dodgers actually signed Buehler, a medical examination confirmed damage to his right elbow ligament that would indeed require Tommy John surgery.
Although some were critical of the Dodgers for wasting their first-round draft pick on known damaged goods, Zaidi and Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman accepted the word of (then) newly appointed Director of Amateur Scouting Billy Gasparino that Buehler was well worth the risk and signed the 6′-2″ / 175-pound right-hander for $1.7 million – nearly $300,000 below the assigned slot value for the 24th overall pick.
“As far as signing him, we still think he is one of the top pitching talents in the draft,” Zaidi said. “We have the luxury of being able to play the long game. Even if it puts him a year behind, we think when he comes back he’s going to justify where we selected him. Obviously we signed him for a reduced number that allowed us to do some other things in the draft.”
Buehler underwent the procedure – performed by Dodgers head physician and renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache – on August 8, 2015.
Fast forward to July 7, 2016.
In an otherwise uneventful game between the Dodgers Low Single-A affiliate Great Lakes Loons against the West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers), Buehler made his first professional appearance. In his 2.0-inning debut and exactly three weeks before his 22nd birthday, Buehler faced a total of six batters, striking out two of them without allowing a run or hit and issuing one walk.
One month later – on August 10, 2016 – Buehler made his second start, this time for the Arizona Rookie League Dodgers against the AZL White Sox. He he struck out three of the six batters he faced in his 2.0 innings of work without allowing a run, hit, or walk.
Fast forward to April 10, 2017.
After a successful 2017 spring training, Buehler was assigned to the Dodgers Advanced Single-A affiliate Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the highly competitive California League. It’s no secret that High-A is where players – regardless of what their initial draft number was – begin to receive serious scrutiny from not only their own organization, but from scouts from every MLB team. Those present at Buehler’s Cal League debut saw him allow one unearned run on one hit while striking out four of the 11 batters he faced without issuing a walk.
Do you see a pattern here?
Not only did the gamble taken by Friedman and Zaidi pay off, the Buehler signing may very well end up being among the best signings in Dodgers history.
Lo and behold, on Saturday night, April 15, 2017 – Jackie Robinson Day – while the entire baseball world focused on and paid tribute to one of the greatest men in our history, 22-year-old right-hander Walker Buehler led the Quakes to a record-setting 5-3 win over the Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres) in his home debut in front of 4,702 at LoanMart Field. In his 3.0 innings of work, Buehler allowed no runs on two hits and struck out the final eight of the 11 total batters he faced, while topping out at 99-MPH on the LoanMart Field radar gun.
The record-setting part is that Messrs. Shea Spitzbarth, Dean Kremer and Wes Helsabeck struck out a combined 12 Storm batters behind Buehler to give the Quakes a total of 20 strikeouts on the night. According to the Quakes official Twitter account, this is a new franchise record and only two shy of the Cal League record of 22 punch-outs.
If Quakes manager Drew Saylor follows his current rotation schedule and including Sunday’s off day, Buehler’s next start projects out to be on Friday, April 21 2017, when the Quakes return to LoanMart Field to being a seven-game homestand against the Inland Empire 66ers (Angels) and the San Jose Giants (Giants).
Although Buehler has yet to meet the requisite five innings to qualify for a win, he could very easily be at least 3-0 and possibly even 5-0 in his brief pro career. That said, Walker Buehler fans can expect the Dodgers to be extremely careful with their number six overall ranked prospect and will undoubtedly continue to limit his innings.
Southern California Walker Buehler fans can also expect his time at Rancho Cucamonga to be relatively short, which most certainly is a blessing for Tulsa and Oklahoma City Walker Buehler fans.
… if you get my drift.