Despite eye condition, prospect Julio Urias dazzles on the mound
Whether Julio Urias is pitching or seated in front of his locker, his left eye is always nearly closed.
He can see from the eye, but it contains benign mass. The condition required three operations in childhood and produced a droopy eyelid.
“That’s how God works,” Urias said in Spanish. “He gave me a bad left eye but a good left arm.”
The left arm unleashes 98-mph fastballs and has made the baby-faced Mexican teenager one of the top prospects in baseball. At 18, he is the youngest player in the Dodgers’ spring-training camp by almost two years.
Dodgers management views this spring as an opportunity for Urias to spend time around Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, as well as the major league coaching staff.
Urias understands the value of observing how pitchers such as Kershaw and Greinke prepare for the season. “My first step is to learn from the big horses,” he said. “I want to learn as much as I can.”
Urias has already noticed differences from the minor leagues.
“Here, the trainers aren’t on top of you,” he said. “Everyone has to do their work on their own.”
General Manager Farhan Zaidi and Manager Don Mattingly want Urias to take his newfound knowledge back with him to the minor leagues. But Urias has other plans.
He is hoping to pitch — soon — in the big leagues. “I don’t know if it will happen at the end of camp or sometime during the season, but I hope this year it happens,” he said.
The prospect of realizing his lifelong dream prompted Urias to drop 20 pounds in the off-season. Listed at 5 feet 11, he weighs around 200 pounds.
“It tells me a lot that he’s understanding that it’s not going to be easy and that you have to continue to work to get better and stronger,” Mattingly said.
A.J. Ellis saw signs of that maturity when catching Urias in a recent bullpen session.
“I’d like to know how old he really is because there’s no way a kid 18 years old can have that type of composure,” Ellis joked. “That’s what was most impressive to me, his tempo, his ability to stay in the moment.
“Most guys you catch who are in their first big-league camp, they’re throwing 100 mph because of the adrenaline. I’ve caught guys in the past who, when they miss their spot, try to do more the next time. He just stayed the same the whole time. He has the confidence and the composure of a seasoned veteran guy.”
Longtime observers say Urias has exhibited those characteristics from the time the Dodgers signed him during the same scouting trip to Mexico on which they also landed Yasiel Puig.
Urias was only 16 when he started pitching for the club’s Great Lakes affiliate in the Midwest League, which is considered low-A on the competition ladder. Last season, at 17, he pitched a perfect inning in an exhibition game against the San Diego Padres and went on to dominate the California League, a high-A circuit.
Urias was often spectacular in 2014, posting a 2.36 earned-run average in 25 games, including 20 starts. He struck out 109 batters in 87 2/3 innings and was selected for the Futures Game, an All-Star-break showcase for top prospects.
There are people in the Dodgers organization who believe Urias is ready to pitch in the major leagues now. But the front office’s main priority is to protect him by limiting his innings.
“It feels strange,” Urias said. “They take me out in the third inning. If the team is winning, I can’t get the win. But it’s something they want to do and they’re doing what they think is best for me. I have to get used to it.”
Zaidi acknowledged the Dodgers face a challenge when mapping out Urias’ future because he is unusually advanced for his age.
“I think, with him, it’s just going to be using his total innings last year and building off that,” Zaidi said. “In general, you don’t want a guy’s innings to jump by more than 20 or 50 innings or so.”
Zaidi said the Dodgers have not yet set Urias’ innings count for the upcoming season. Urias guessed he would pitch 110-120 innings.
Urias wants as many of those innings as possible to be in the major leagues, regardless of the role.
“It can be as a starter or a reliever, but my goal is to make it as a starter,” he said. “If there’s an opportunity as a reliever, I’ll take advantage of that.”
Urias said he doesn’t feel burdened by comparisons to countryman Fernando Valenzuela, who pitched his first game for the Dodgers at 19.
“It feels beautiful that they compare you to a great Mexican pitcher,” he said. “He had a great career. I hope I, too, have a beautiful career. But I have my own goals in mind. People might compare me to Fernando or to another pitcher, but that’s not my goal.”
Similarly, Urias said he doesn’t pay much attention to top-prospect lists, most of which list him in the top 10.
“It reflects the work we’ve done,” he said. “I’m proud of it, but it’s not the goal.
“My dream is reach the major leagues. When I get there, I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something.”
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