Walker Buehler returning in 2023 after undergoing a risky second Tommy John surgery in 2022 is objectively good news.
The only remaining question we have, as his road to recovery reaches the Triple-A rehab stage, is, "Would short-yardage Buehler be more valuable out of the bullpen than as a limited-use starter?"
Buehler begins his minor-league rehab clock on Sunday, when he'll reportedly target 1-2 innings for Oklahoma City. After that, he'll pitch in two more rehab outings, minimum, before rejoining the Dodgers down the stretch.
The current plan, according to Dave Roberts, is to bring Buehler back into the rotation, but not as a "traditional starter," considering he doesn't have nearly enough time on the ledger to be stretched out as a five-or-six-inning guy. That'll be a Spring Training 2024 concern. For now, the best the Dodgers can do is have Buehler plow through the lineup once, then turn things over to a bulk arm in the bullpen.
Wouldn't it make more sense, though, to have Buehler as the bulk arm? Or even as a one-inning weapon out of the bullpen while he adapts to the stretch run, considering how nasty that would theoretically be as an October option?
Will Walker Buehler help more as Dodgers starter or Dodgers reliever in 2023?
The Dodgers' logic is probably that teaching Buehler a new role down the stretch will be more trouble than it's worth, especially considering he won't begin 2024 out of the 'pen in any capacity.
But is three innings of Buehler, followed by a mess of bullpen mix-and-match, a better playoff formula than having Buehler in the 'pen as a fireman? It would be nice to know how Buehler functions when he has to rev up mid-game before the spotlight arrives in October ... or it would be nice if the Dodgers had the intention of using him that way/going all hands on deck.
They seem to be forecasting their careful intentions with Buehler here, and ultimately, that's fine. His future remains crucial to a Dodgers rotation banking on one too many wild cards/prospects these days without a long-term, healthy ace. But one inning of high-leverage relief while he recuperates (a la John Smoltz, Closer) could be more valuable than a half-start come playoff time.