Julio Urias turns 20 on Friday. The birthday ends his reign as the lone teenager in Major League Baseball. What will not end, what will continue into 2017 and beyond, is the Dodgers’ ongoing effort to develop Urias into a front-line starter while still extracting value from him at the big-league level.
The precociousness of Urias presents a puzzle for the organization. His talent outstrips all minor-league levels, rendering wasteful any more apprenticeships in the Pacific Coast League or elsewhere. Yet his left arm has not developed the endurance necessary to handle the rigors of a full season in the majors.
During the last two summers, the Dodgers (64-50) declined to part with Urias at the trade deadline, banking on his future potential. The team has experienced a taste of his ability in 2016. He will be able to offer more in 2017.
With 93 1/3 innings already under his belt this season, Urias (2-2, 4.66 earned-run average) is likely to finish the year at somewhere between 110 and 120 innings. Team officials declined to place an expected number on his innings limit for 2017, but it is reasonable to expect he could throw 150.
Asked this week to diagnose the challenges of managing an asset such as Urias, General Manager Farhan Zaidi smiled. Urias is too good to stash away in the minors. And he is not physically prepared to pitch every fifth day.
“We’re seeing it right now,” Zaidi said. “It might not be fair to expect a 19-year-old, especially a pitcher, to make it through a 162-game season. Like with a lot of what we do, it’s about balancing the short term with the long term, and finding the right balance with that. In Julio’s case, our pitching alternatives have fluctuated with our health. When we’ve been thinner on options, we’ve relied on him a little more heavily.”
Last year, at this point, my season was already over. But it’s a different mindset. I keep getting ready so I can keep pitching as long as they tell me to.
His next start could come as early as Saturday. Manager Dave Roberts suggested Urias as the contingency plan if the team does not feel comfortable starting Brandon McCarthy, who has lost his fastball command as he returns from Tommy John surgery. McCarthy was scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Thursday to determine his readiness.
The Dodgers left Urias in a familiar position, waiting on call for his next assignment. After spending a few weeks in the rotation earlier this season, he has shuttled between the majors and triple-A Oklahoma City, flirting with both the rotation and the bullpen.
Urias indicated he has never worked as hard as he has this season. In addition to a career-high total in innings, he has dedicated himself to improving his strength and conditioning.
“Last year, at this point, my season was already over,” Urias said through an interpreter. “But it’s a different mindset. I keep getting ready so I can keep pitching as long as they tell me to.”
Signed out of Mexico in 2012, when he was 16, Urias felt his development hit a bump last season. In his first seven starts with double-A Tulsa in 2015, Urias struck out 46 batters in 36 innings, induced swinging strikes 14% of the time and posted a 3.00. But he missed nearly two months after undergoing surgery to remove a benign tumor from his left eye. He finished the season with only 80 1/3 innings, seven fewer than he pitched in his professional debut the year before.
Scott Boras, Urias’ agent, applauded the Dodgers for their guidance of Urias through last season. His agency has done research that advocates limiting the innings jumps for young pitchers to about 30 per season. His lone quibble was the team rotating Urias from the rotation to the bullpen and back.
“To me, when you have a starting pitcher, the cadence should be ‘That’s what he does,’” Boras said. “That’s where his release point is. That’s what he’s used to doing. You put him in the bullpen to keep his innings down, you’re disrupting the cadence.”
The organization has moved Urias around as his teammates collapsed around him. With a National League record of 26 different players on the disabled list in 2016, the Dodgers have been forced to adapt. Urias has proved malleable.
During a fortnight in July, Urias threw only one inning in a minor-league game. His next assignment was an emergency start on the road against the playoff-bound Washington Nationals on July 21. Urias turned in four innings of one-run baseball and accepted a demotion to the minors a day later.
The two-week sojourn was not just to save innings, Zaidi explained. The team wanted to keep Urias, who has rarely pitched regularly on a five-day schedule in the minors, fresh as the year continued.
When injuries leveled the bullpen earlier this month, Urias met the team in Denver. His luggage did not. Urias pitched without his glasses and gave up three runs in three innings. Five days later, he started against the Phillies and lasted five innings. He could start again as soon as Saturday.
“It’s been a pretty dynamic process,” Zaidi said. “Where we don’t just say, ‘This is the innings limit. This is how many he’s throwing. He’s going to be in triple-A until this point, and then he’s going to be in the big leagues.’ It’s obviously been fluid in terms of role, innings, inning projections, days off, all that stuff.”