The plan was for Julio Urias to be here. He’s not.
Instead of preparing to start Thursday for the Dodgers, Urias is scheduled to make his next appearance for the organization’s triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City.
This could be a simple case of a 20-year-old prospect requiring a short break from major league competition to refine his delivery.
There’s another possibility and it’s far more disconcerting: The Dodgers are messing up a potential franchise cornerstone.
Watching Urias labor through his two most recent starts, it was impossible not to wonder if the purported geniuses in the front office were overthinking when mapping out his season.
The Dodgers transformed their future ace into an experimental subject and, if his 5.40 earned-run average is an indication, the experiment is failing.
This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to a recent event. The concern was raised in this very space back in spring training. With only a few weeks remaining in camp, Urias was unaware of how the Dodgers wanted to use him in the upcoming season.
“I don’t know what the plan is,” Urias said at the time.
Positive intentions were behind the confusion. The Dodgers wanted to protect Urias’ arm, which pitched 127 2/3 innings last season between the majors and minors. To avoid a significant increase in workload that could jeopardize his health, management was prepared to have him miss part of the season: the beginning, the middle or the end.
The Dodgers wanted to avoid the final option. With Urias being the team’s most talented pitcher other than Clayton Kershaw, they wanted him available in the postseason.
They attempted a bizarre midseason shutdown two years ago, disrupting his rhythm and perhaps slowing down his development.
The most likely choice was to delay the start of his season. But the Dodgers didn’t want to fully commit to that, which would have required them to postpone the start of spring training for him.
Friedman constructed a rotation consisting of pitchers with frightening medical histories. In addition to protecting Urias, they had to protect themselves from the possibility of multiple injuries to their starting pitchers.
This required Urias to train over the winter as if he would be part of the opening-day roster. He said he threw bullpen sessions earlier in the winter than in the past, but was slowed down in spring training, where he was placed on a throwing program that resembled that of a long reliever. Urias continued throwing at the team’s spring-training complex and made his first three starts of the season in triple A. Between the exhibition season and the minor leagues, Urias wasted innings that he could have pitched in the major leagues.
The major league portion of his season started with promise, as Urias posted a 1.06 ERA in his first three starts. But he was pounded over his last two starts, a sudden loss of command resulting in his giving up a combined 13 runs in 6 1/3 innings. With six other starting pitchers available, the Dodgers demoted Urias to triple A on Sunday.
Friedman said he was “extremely confident” Urias’ unorthodox training regimen had nothing to do with his recent slump.
“This is something where his delivery got a little bit out of whack and it’s hard to fix that on the fly in the big leagues,” Friedman said.
Though Urias’ agent, Scott Boras, wanted his client to work out his problems in the major leagues, he understood why the team sent him down.
“There are more than five goldfish in the fish tank,” Boras said.
Will Urias be as understanding? He followed the team’s unusual instructions without complaint, but the moment something went wrong, he was punished for it.
The Dodgers are counting on Urias to have the mental strength to overcome whatever frustrations and disappointments he encounters early in his career. And perhaps they are right to do so. Little has fazed Urias up to this point.
At the same time, why place unnecessary obstacles in his way?
The last time the Dodgers had a pitching prospect of this caliber, they did what they could to have him on a regular schedule. They limited his innings in certain starts, occasionally offered him extra innings between starts, but otherwise didn’t do anything too radical with him. Even then, the pitcher in question didn’t find his footing until well into his second season in the major leagues.
That pitcher was Clayton Kershaw.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez