The Dodgers’ pitching hasn’t been all that formidable for most of this season.
Come October, however, they are hoping the group will look a whole lot different.
On Thursday, the club will welcome Clayton Kershaw back to the rotation, set to activate the three-time Cy Young Award winner from the injured list following his six-week absence because of a shoulder injury.
Over the next couple of months, the Dodgers are optimistic about having other injured pitchers return to health too, getting positive updates about several rehabbing arms during their two-game series in Arizona this week.
Walker Buehler and Blake Treinen faced hitters in a simulated game at Chase Field on Wednesday, their first live action since undergoing surgeries last year.
Read more: Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler could return to rotation soon as Dodgers sweep A’s
Reliever Shelby Miller also checked in with the team, as he continues a rehab assignment at their nearby Camelback Ranch spring training complex.
All three have hurdles to clear in their recoveries, but each remains in play to return by the end of the season.
And despite the Dodgers’ first-place position in the National League West, that trio represents potential — and much-needed — reinforcements for a pitching staff that still ranks just 19th in the majors in earned-run average.
“We’re gonna have some tough decisions,” manager Dave Roberts said of a potential postseason pitching staff, “which is a good thing.”
Buehler is the biggest X-factor in the Dodgers’ stretch-run pitching plans.
When the All-Star right-hander initially underwent Tommy John surgery last August — the second time in his career he underwent the reconstructive elbow procedure — his chances of contributing in 2023 seemed slim.
However, Buehler began a throwing progression during spring training. He’d been ramping up his bullpen sessions while rehabbing in Arizona in recent weeks. And on Wednesday, his velocity was up to 93 mph in the one-inning sim game, putting him on pace to be back in the mid-90s within the next couple of months.
“It went really well,” Roberts said. “Much better than I expected.”
Buehler acknowledged his original goal of rejoining the Dodgers by Sept. 1 is no longer realistic. He’ll still need “a handful” of more sim games before even going out on a rehab assignment.
Read more: Walker Buehler aims to be back by September. Dave Roberts isn’t so sure
However, the pitcher remains confident of returning in some capacity before the end of the regular season.
“Tommy John [rehab] is 14 to 18 months, and If I step on a field this year, I’ll have blown that out of the water,” Buehler said. “So I’m pretty proud of where I am right now.”
Earlier on this trip, Buehler accompanied the Dodgers to San Diego so he could throw a bullpen at the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside.
During the session, which was observed by assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness, Buehler threw some pitches with PGA Tour star Jon Rahm standing in as a pretend hitter.
More important, though, he used Titleist’s motion-capture technology to look for ways to ease the burden his high-velocity delivery puts on his elbow.
“I’ve hurt my elbow twice now pretty seriously, so there’s a part of what’s in my delivery that isn’t working — while also trying to keep the things that do work well,” Buehler said. “We’re going to try to alter how I train or how I practice to kind of clean up some of that stuff. All in all, I think it’s one of those things where I’m just trying to take care of myself and my body.”
Cleaning up his delivery will be important. This late in the season, there is little margin for error for any setbacks in Buehler’s recovery. As it stands, it’s unclear how built up he will be by the end of the season, and what kind of role — as a starter, opener or bullpen arm — he could potentially fill in the playoffs.
“I think [we are just] trying to get as many good pitches built up as I can and see where we’re at,” Buehler said.
Treinen is in a similar boat.
Read more: Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen could miss 2023 after shoulder surgery
After undergoing shoulder surgery in November, the reliever this week described his rehab as a grind. In his most recent bullpen sessions, his velocity reached only 86-87 mph. And after he initially hoped for an August return, his odds of returning at all were starting to dwindle.
Reunited with the major league coaching staff this week, however, the right-hander took a couple of important steps.
In catch play on Tuesday, he said he made a few “tweaks” that led to “huge strides” in his delivery. Then on Wednesday, he unexpectedly followed Buehler during the simulated game, reaching 94 mph with his fastball in an auspicious inning of work.
“Blake was 100th percentile,” Roberts said. “It was a lot more than we anticipated.”
Roberts added that, given he’ll have to build up to only one inning, Treinen’s timetable might now be ahead of Buehler’s — though Treinen said he still doesn’t have a return date targeted yet.
“I’d love to say hey, one month, [I’m] back; on this day, I’ll be here,” he said. “I hope so. I’ve just got to [keep] seeing some climbs in velo, and then they can make the decision if I’m good enough to help them.”
Miller has the most straightforward route to a return.
Out since June 15 because of a herniated disk in his neck that started “shooting on a nerve,” he said, leading to numbness in his left, non-throwing arm, Miller began his rehab assignment in the Arizona Complex League on Saturday and was slated for another appearance Wednesday.
Miller will make another outing this coming Saturday, after which he could potentially join triple-A Oklahoma City for the rest of his rehab assignment — putting him on the fastest track to be the next injured pitcher to come off the IL.
“It was definitely concerning at first,” Miller said of his injury. “When I got the MRI, I was kind of shocked with the results and how severe it was. But I guess just time off and doing exercises and lengthening the spine and stuff just kind of helped it. And I’ve been feeling a lot better.”
Getting back Miller, Treinen, Buehler or Daniel Hudson — who hasn’t given up hope of returning from a knee injury — could further revamp the Dodgers’ struggling pitching staff, one that began getting a midseason makeover at the trade deadline with the additions of starter Lance Lynn, swingman Ryan Yarbrough and reliever Joe Kelly.
Read more: Dodgers reliever Daniel Hudson’s latest knee injury feels like ‘kind of a sick joke’
Given the team’s continuing concerns in their rotation, which has few reliable options beyond Kershaw and Julio Urías, and inconsistency in the bullpen, they might need as many arms as possible to piece together their playoff pitching plans.
Dodgers signing top Korean prospect
The Dodgers are finalizing the signing of highly touted Korean pitching prospect Hyun-seok Jang, according to a person with knowledge of the situation unauthorized to speak publicly.
Jang, a 19-year-old right-hander, was expected to be the potential No. 1 overall pick in the KBO draft this year. However, he decided to begin pursuing an MLB career instead.
Jang’s agreement with the Dodgers, who haven’t yet decided where he will report first, is reportedly worth $900,000. The Dodgers had used most of their international signing bonus pool back at the start of this year’s signing period over the winter, but managed to acquire more money in a trade with the Chicago White Sox last week.
In non-pitching news Wednesday, Roberts said injured designated hitter J.D. Martinez received an epidural shot to address discomfort in his groin/hamstring area and will be unavailable until at least Saturday.
The good news is that Martinez, who has dealt with the same issue several times in recent weeks, yet again avoided an IL stint after an MRI showed “nothing new” with the injury.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.