The Dodgers’ need for a reliable, conventional left-handed reliever was never more obvious than in the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox on Sunday night. The score was tied with Jackie Bradley Jr., a left-handed batter, leading off. The Dodgers countered with Zac Rosscup, a left-handed reliever designated for assignment by three teams since November. He walked Bradley on four pitches, was pulled and designated for assignment again the next day.
Rosscup’s departure left the Dodgers with, on paper, one left-hander in their bullpen: Julio Urias. The 22-year-old has been very good this season, but there’s some fine print complicating his status as a reliever.
The electrifying pitcher is only available for a few innings at a time and is given ample time to rest. Usually the number of days off matches the number of innings he pitched. When he does pitch, he is always given a clean inning; the Dodgers have refused to drop him into a jam. They view Urias as a starter in the long run but have attempted to walk a tightrope, maximizing his abilities while handling him with extreme caution two years after he underwent shoulder surgery.
So far, the blueprint has generated success. Urias has a 2.36 earned-run average in 53 1/3 innings as a starter and reliever, which was paused when he was placed on administrative leave for a week in May after he was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery. Charges were never filed. In 16 relief appearances, his ERA is 1.76. He hasn’t allowed an unearned run in his last nine outings, a span of 20 innings.
“I’ve already been in the two roles,” Urias said in Spanish. “It’s already gone bad, it’s already gone well. So I think that I’ve passed all the things that you need to pass. I think that that has given me a lot of strength.”
A return to starter before the end of the season is possible. Part of the Dodgers’ rationale for the unusual role is that curtailing Urias’ workload during the regular season could allow them to unleash Urias as a starter in the playoffs. For that to happen, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, Urias would need about a month to build up the proper stamina. In other words, a decision isn’t imminent.
“We know that he’s elite in this role, but I think that when you’re talking end of August, there’s still plenty of time to kind of build up and do some things,” Roberts said. “Right now, I think that’s an end-of-August conversation. But a lot can happen there.”
One possibility is that the Dodgers could strike out on acquiring a left-hander by the July 31 trade deadline and decide to keep Urias in the bullpen. They could then use him more aggressively in the playoffs as a reliever the way they did last season.
“There’s still two sides,” Roberts said. “Number one, you’ve got to keep him healthy. [And] you’ve to give him enough innings to be ready for next year. So to use him more often, it’s a possibility.”
One way or another, Urias’ role will likely change come October. For now, he is thriving in his unusual job, mowing down hitters every few days for two or three innings.
“If that’s something the team wants me to do it, it’ll be another challenge,” Urias said of starting in the playoffs. “I already did it in 2016. Why not this year? Last year they gave me a challenge, being in the bullpen and that went well. If this year they change the challenge, I’ll be ready.”