Dodgers Prospect Julio Urias Stymies Padres
The Los Angeles Dodgers have a hot young pitching prospect named Julio Urias who started today’s Spring Training game against the Padres. What is most interesting about this fact is that Urias is only 17 years old.
Urias only pitched the first inning of today’s game, but he was just about as impressive as he could be in that limited amount of work. He retired all three batters he faced, and all three were legitimate major league regulars, not minor league prospects also getting a look in games that don’t mean anything in the standings. He struck out both Will Venable and Yonder Alonso and also got Chris Denorfia out.
The back story is that the Dodgers signed Urias in August of 2012 when he turned 16 years old for somewhere between $1 million and $2 million dollars. Aside from being one of the top foreign amateur pitching prospects that year, he was somehow the property of one of the Mexican League teams, although he’d never played in the top Mexican League, so he didn’t cost the Dodgers any of their foreign bonus allotment to sign him.
He was apparently so good in Spring Training 2013 that the Dodgers jumped him over Rookie League ball and short season A ball and had him start the 2013 season at full-season A-ball, pitching for the Great Lakes Loons in the Midwest League. Urias made 18 starts, most of them before he turned 17, and logged a 2.48 ERA, although he pitched in only 54.1 IP. It appears that the Dodgers never let him pitch much more than four innings in a start, obviously in an attempt to protect his extremely young arm.
Urias’ other numbers last year were even more impressive than his ERA suggests. He struck out just over 11 batters per nine innings pitched and had a strikeouts to walks ratio of better than 4 to 1.
Despite the obviously great talent Urias possesses, I have to wonder about the wisdom of starting a player this young in a full-season minor league. Urias must have been at least two or three years younger than any other player in the league; and while its certain there were many other Latin players on his team (Urias spoke only Spanish last year), I suspect that almost all of them are from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, rather than Mexico.
There are players nearly as young as Urias in the Dominican Summer League, but at least they are playing in a Spanish-speaking country. Also, I think it’s likely that the Dominican Summer League players under age 19 or 20 who don’t have their families nearby live in dormitories run by the teams.
There’s also a question how you prepare a pitcher this young to handle the workloads that will come as he moves up to the high minors. Urias is currently listed as 5’11” and 160 lbs, which is just fine for a 16 or 17 year old, but it also suggests he’s got a long way to go before he finishes growing and becomes a man.
Presumably, the Dodgers will promote Urias to Rancho Cucamonga in the Class A+ California League this upcoming season, since there isn’t any point in sending him back to a level he’s already dominated. Presumably, the Dodgers will again limit Urias to four or fewer innings per start, as they did last year.
At some point, though, the Dodgers are likely to start extending his innings pitched totals in a big way while he’s still a very young pitcher. For example, let’s assume that Urias dominates Class A+ hitters in limited work in 2014, and in 2015 at AA ball the Dodgers have Urias throw 130 innings, at roughly the same age that San Francisco Giants prospect Clayton Blackburn threw 133 innings at Class A Augusta in 2012 (Blackburn was eight months older in 2012 than Urias will be in 2015, and he’s a much, much bigger young man). I think it’s anyone’s guess how well Urias will handle that kind of a workload at age 18, let alone heavier major league workloads that might come soon after.
In the long run the Dodgers might be well served by strictly limiting Urias’ pitch counts and innings pitched totals throughout his time in the minor leagues and by deciding that no matter how well Urias pitches in the minor leagues (or in Spring Training against established major league hitters), the team will not promote him to the majors until he turns 20 in August 2016. Major league history is littered with pitchers who were world-beaters at age 19 but whose arms were permanently burned out a short time later.