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Dodgers are taking their time in turning top prospect Julio Urias into a major league starter

How can a pitcher develop the necessary arm strength to become a major league starter if he's barely allowed to pitch?

Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi paused to think.

"Fair question," he said.

It's a question Zaidi and the Dodgers' other top decision makers will have to think about as they map out the upcoming season for Julio Urias, their prized 19-year-old left-hander from Mexico who is widely regarded as the sport's top pitching prospect.

As evidenced by the $206.5-million contract Zack Greinke signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, pitching has never been more valuable. Young, cost-controlled pitching is especially so.

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The Dodgers are desperate to protect Urias' arm, but they also have to develop it. There is no blueprint for that, only educated guesses.

The consequences are significant. Do it right and Urias could be their next ace. Mess it up and the Dodgers might be forced into the free-agent market, where a front-line starter would cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.

The organization is taking a conservative approach with Urias, who was signed as a 16-year-old.

Urias pitched only 80 innings last year and 87 the year before that. A front-line major league starter pitches more than 200.

"I felt a little bad about that," Urias said in Spanish of his decreased workload.

Zaidi defended the Dodgers' methods, noting that Urias is the same age as many of the domestic high school seniors who were selected in the amateur draft last year.

Urias, who is expected to open the season with triple-A Oklahoma City, will "definitely" pitch more than 100 innings this year, Zaidi said. That's still considerably short of what would be required for him to be part of a major league rotation for an entire season.

"His innings are clearly going to be trending upwards for the next couple of seasons as we try to build him up to a full workload," Zaidi said.

Urias said he would follow whatever course the team recommends. "I know that what they have in mind is what's best for me," he said.

Last year, he took a midseason break to undergo a cosmetic procedure on his left eye. Urias has a benign mass in the eye that forces his eyelid to droop. The operation, his fourth on that eye, removed part of that mass.

Before the surgery, Urias was 1-2 with a 3.00 earned-run average in seven starts with double-A Tulsa. With 46 strikeouts in 36 innings, he was pitching well enough that he considered postponing the operation. He thought he could be called up to the major leagues.

"When you're in the minor leagues and are in double A or triple A, you know that a call can come at any moment," he said. "Every time I pitched, I thought, 'Hopefully, God gives me the opportunity to be part of the team.' "

Urias underwent the surgery in late May. He didn't pitch in double A again for more than two months.

He pitched six more times for Tulsa, posting a 2.51 ERA and striking out 28 batters in 32 1/3 innings. But he said he never felt right after his return.

"To lose two months once you have your rhythm and your pitches are working, it's very hard to regain everything," he said.

Urias finished the season in triple A, where he was rocked. In two starts, he pitched a combined 4 1/3 innings and gave up nine runs.

His dreams of a September promotion to the major leagues were dashed.

Urias is now in the Dodgers' major league spring-training camp for the second time.

"I feel more confident about everything," he said. "I feel more part of the team. I know the players now."

Farm director Gabe Kapler likes what he's seen.

Kapler prefers to watch bullpen sessions from behind the catcher to get an idea of how a pitcher would look from a hitter's vantage point.

"As a right-handed hitter myself, the ball's like bearing in on your hands when he chooses to do that, and the fastball explodes and rides when he's trying to keep it straighter," Kapler said. "And the changeup has been a really impressive pitch thus far."

Still, Urias faces long odds of making the Dodgers' rotation. Clayton Kershaw, Scott Kazmir, Kenta Maeda, Brett Anderson and Alex Wood are expected to be the five starting pitchers when the season opens. If any of them go down, Mike Bolsinger will be the likely replacement. The team is also expecting Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy to return from injuries this season.

Urias said exercising patience can be hard. As young as he is, his debut has been anticipated from the time he pitched a perfect inning in a Cactus League game against the San Diego Padres in 2014. Most of his conversations with his mentor and off-season training partner, Washington Nationals left-hander Oliver Perez, are about the major leagues.

"My grandmother always told me God will do everything, but that you have to reach out your hand, so he can help you," Urias said. "In my case, that means continuing to work hard. If he sees me working hard, he'll give me the opportunity.

"The truth is, yes, it's difficult. But you have to remain calm and patient. They're the ones who make the decisions. That's their job. Our job is on the field."

Who has it harder? Urias or the Dodgers' front office?

Certainly, a case could be made for the latter. Not only is Urias' future at stake, the front office's could be too.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Twitter: @dylanohernandez

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