Column: At 20, Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias is placing his career in the team’s cautious hands

Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urias participates in a spring training workout at Camelback Ranch on Feb. 20 in Glendale, Ariz.
(Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Spring training is a period of preparation, only in the case of Julio Urias, he doesn’t know what he’s preparing for.

It’s a hard position for any pitcher to be in, especially a 20-year-old with three months of major league experience.

Julio Urias isn’t any pitcher.

If every fastball he unleashes and every curveball he uncorks are evidence of his unlimited promise, so is the level-headed mind-set he has adopted to deal with the shifting plans of an indecisive front office.

As part of the organization’s commitment to protect his precious left arm, Urias will be shut down at some point this season. The break could come at the start of the season, with Urias remaining at the Dodgers’ spring-training complex as the team breaks camp. Or perhaps he will be shelved in the middle of the season. Or, theoretically, at the end.

The team’s best pitcher in the exhibition season outside of Clayton Kershaw, Urias has looked like a star in the making. Talking about his situation, he has sounded like one, too.


His candor was refreshing. His sense of perspective was admirable.

“I don’t know what the plan is,” Urias said in Spanish. “But when I see the plan, I’ll feel … not bad, but I worked so hard in the off-season, and if one of those things that you mentioned happens, I’ll feel a little bad.

“But I know they’re doing it for me, they’re doing it for my future. While I’m with them, I’m placing my career in their hands. I have a lot of confidence in them.”

And the Dodgers have confidence in his mental makeup.

From the time he came to the United States as a 16-year-old signed out of Mexico, Urias has been asked to be patient and flexible.

The Dodgers limited his innings in 2015 by scheduling midseason cosmetic surgery on his drooping left eyelid. The plan somewhat backfired. The one-month break disrupted his rhythm, ending any chance he had of making his major league debut that fall. There was another unintended consequence: Urias’ innings count remained more or less the same from the previous season, which had an effect on how many innings he could pitch the next season, as well as this season.

“I don’t know what would have happened if I had pitched more” in 2015, he said. “Maybe I would have reached the major leagues sooner. But they protected me and maybe the saved me from an injury.”

Urias started last season in the minor leagues. He was promoted to the majors in late May, pitching in 18 games on an irregular schedule. Three of those outings were in relief.

“We threw a lot at him last year and he handled it with flying colors,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said.

That doesn’t mean they should throw more at him this year?

“No, it doesn’t,” Roberts said. “I hear you.”

Urias worked out this off-season with his eye on the World Baseball Classic, thinking the Dodgers might allow him to pitch in the tournament. He threw bullpen sessions earlier than he normally would. He worked more on his breaking ball.

The Dodgers wouldn’t release him for the WBC. He said he has no regrets about the adjustments he made to his training program because of how he has felt this spring.

Urias has overpowered opposing hitters, striking out seven batters in five innings over three exhibition games. He has allowed only one run.

“Nasty,” said a scout who watched his most recent performance, a two-inning relief appearance Friday night. Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, acknowledged that Urias is one of the team’s top five starting pitchers.

But what happens to the work he did over the winter, the innings he pitched this spring, if he starts the season in extended spring training? Why not commit to the plan over the winter, instruct him to adjust his training program accordingly and report to spring training later than usual?

The Dodgers had to be mindful not only of Urias’ future, but of their own competitive needs, Roberts said.

Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Hyun-Jin Ryu are healthy, but the team was uncertain that would be the case back in December. Brock Stewart, who was expected to be part of the starting pitching depth, was shut down over the weekend with a shoulder problem.

Roberts said this probably is the last season the Dodgers will have to take extreme precautions with Urias. After pitching 127 2/3 innings last season — including his work in the minor leagues and 5 2/3 innings in the National League playoffs — he should be in line to pitch 160 to 180 innings this year. Roberts said the Dodgers are disinclined to use Urias in relief as a method of conserving innings. He also said he would like for the left-hander to be available in September and October.

Urias is looking forward to when he can pitch without any restrictions.

The postseason last year offered a vision of the pitcher he wants to become.

Urias watched with nervous anticipation as Kershaw started against the Washington Nationals on three days’ rest in Game 4 of the division series. Two days later, the 20-year-old looked on breathlessly as Kershaw emerged from the Dodgers bullpen and closed out the opening-round series in Game 5.

“Incredible,” Urias recalled telling himself. “I want to do that, too.”

Urias is hopeful he will have a chance to do that one day because of what he is doing now.

“I imagine Kershaw is the best example I can have,” he said. “He prepares every day and is prepared to pitch 500 innings. I imagine he prepares with the mentality of, ‘Whatever the team needs, I’m going to be available to do.’”

Kershaw has pitched 1,760 innings over nine seasons, topping the 200-inning mark five times.

“You can gain a lot of experience early in your career by pitching a lot,” Urias said. “But in the end, maybe you’ll only last five or six years, when you could instead last 10 years, 12 years. I imagine with what I’m doing, I feel good with what they’re doing.”

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez