The Los Angeles Dodgers have a Yu Darvish-shaped hole near the top of their starting rotation. They could fill it with Darvish, who remains on the market, but they could also go with an intriguing internal option straight from the farm.
First, to stipulate: Darvish was a mixed bag during his brief tenure with Los Angeles. After coming over from the Texas Rangers in a trade-deadline swap, the Japanese right-hander battled a back injury and took ugly losses in Games 3 and 7 of the World Series.
Many Dodgers fans are doubtless ready to bid Darvish a not-so-kind farewell. Don't let the door hit ya, etc.
That's not entirely fair, though. We're talking about a four-time All-Star and two-time top-10 American League Cy Young Award finisher who has averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings over five big league seasons. Arms like his aren't easy to replace.
Not easy, but also not impossible. Enter Walker Buehler.
A first-round pick (24th overall) by the Dodgers in the 2015 amateur draft, Buehler posted a 3.35 ERA with 125 strikeouts in 88.2 innings while jumping from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A last season, and he made his big league debut in September.
It was a mercurial rise for the 23-year-old Vanderbilt alum, who is now poised to play Robin to Clayton Kershaw's Batman.
Sure, the Dodgers could technically fill out their rotation with Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu with Buehler marinating in the minors. Or, they could sign one of several marquee pitchers still dangling in free agency, including Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn.
Given L.A.'s stated desire to remain under the luxury tax, a big free-agent splash is unlikely. And multiple members of that proposed starting rotation, including the injury-plagued Ryu, are question marks. Julio Urias, another highly touted young hurler in the Dodgers system, is coming off shoulder surgery.
That opens the door wide for Buehler, who has the stuff to hang in the rotation.
Buehler boasts an electric fastball that sits in the high 90s, and he complements it with an array of plus secondary pitches, including a curveball, slider and changeup. It's the tool bag of a frontline MLB starter and the reason Buehler has averaged 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings across the minor leagues.
Here's some visual evidence, in the form of his impressive, scoreless two-inning major league debut:
Like many hard-throwing youngsters, Buehler's command is imperfect. During his 9.1-inning audition with Los Angeles last season, he struck out 12 but also issued eight free passes.
All of those innings came out of the bullpen, but Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts indicated he views Buehler as part of his starting corps going forward.
"I can certainly expect to see him as a starter," said Roberts, per MLB.com's Ken Gurnick. "How things shake out in spring training will kind of determine where he starts, but [our goal is] for him to continue to develop as a starting pitcher. [He] got his feet wet last year, and I think that it was encouraging in a lot of ways for Walker—the quality of hitters faced, the speed of the game, the preparation, being in big league ballparks, I think, was all very good for him."
Last season, it should be noted, was Buehler's first full year back after undergoing Tommy John surgery. We've witnessed enough Tommy John success stories to believe a comeback is not only possible but probable. Yet, the Dodgers will undoubtedly be cautious with their prized prospect.
Fortunately, L.A. doesn't need Buehler to to log 200-plus innings. They've got depth and an unmitigated ace in Kershaw.
For what it's worth, FanGraphs' Depth Charts metric projects Buehler to post a 3.18 ERA with 11.08 strikeouts per nine in a conservative 74 innings. Compare that to the projected marks of 3.82 and 10.18 in 179 innings for Darvish.
If Buehler could deliver on his potential and ascend to legitimate No. 2 status, it would give the defending NL champs another huge, cost-controlled weapon and put more distance between them and the rest of the Senior Circuit.
It's tempting for Dodgers fans to close their eyes and imagine Buehler as the right-handed complement to Kershaw's southpaw dominance. Batman and Robin.
The durability questions will linger until Buehler puts more distance between himself and his elbow surgery. For now, he sounds optimistic.
"I have a new ligament," Buehler said, per Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times. "I have a new arm. I have new kind of arsenal. It's a different world now."
The kind of world, the Dodgers hope, where this kid dominates.