March 9, 2015
The Pressure of Being 'The Next Kershaw'
It's a treacherous path one travels from teenaged prospect to Cy Young winner to Hall of Famer, further than the journey from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, or from Highland Park to Los Angeles, or even from Culiacan, Mexico to Los Angeles. To be a left-handed pitcher in the fabled Dodgers organization, the path is more treacherous still, thanks to the landmines of expectations that history has laid down.
That’s what lies ahead of Julio Urias. The 18-year-old lefty, from a Mexican city best known for its association with a famous drug cartel, must develop in the ever-present shadow of greatness past and present. No franchise in baseball boasts a better 1-2 punch than the Los Angeles Dodgers do with left-hander legends Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax.
In South Florida, once home to the Dodgers' spring training camp and still home to a disproportionately high number of elderly Jewish Flatbush expats (and me), the tales of Koufax still spin strong. Those who idolized him as a kids wax poetic, fueled by the powerful strength of youthful romanticism. Despite four straight ERA titles and three Cy Young awards, this Kershaw fella still has a few things to prove to the old guard before being mentioned in such rarefied air. After all, Koufax was from Brooklyn and won four rings. What has this Kershaw kid done in October, they ask.
Of course we know what Kershaw has accomplished, and a few October hiccups aside, his resume is nearly as flawless as his flowing mane of hair. Yet with Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, still falling short of the nostalgic expectations of some (albeit older) fans, it’ll be a wonder if Urias stands any chance of appeasing the masses. When faced with such a dynamic combination of pre-spotlight hype and romanticism of the past, the mountain ahead seems almost insurmountable.
As if that wasn’t enough, there is an additional cultural aspect adding pressure to Urias. Even by the extremely specific standard of Mexican-born left-handed teenagers, Dodgers history has set an almost unachievable bar with Fernando Valenzuela in the early 1980s, and Urias won't avoid his shadow even these three decades later—Valenzuela is a Spanish-language announcer for the Dodgers. It’s difficult to envision something akin to Fernando-mania these days, given that it’s virtually impossible for a player to sneak onto the national stage anymore, but the mania growing around Urias is unlike anything even Fernando had to deal with until the summer of 1981.
It’s not fair what we do to these kids. That’s what they are, after all. No matter how much we describe, discuss and dissect Julio Urias, he’s still just an 18-year-old kid.
It wasn't fair when we ranked Urias the 35th-best overall prospect last year, after he'd handled the Midwest League at an age when most are handling college-prep chemistry and installing sweet sound systems in their crummy cars. But he backed it up. His exposure has only been more intense this offseason. After he rose to yet another challenge last year—the California League, whose severe hitting environments nearly crippled even top pick Mark Appel, a 22-year-old who had pitched on a big college stage—we ranked him the 10th-best prospect in baseball. Others were even more aggressive.
But as Urias has met every challenge, he's been handled carefully by the Dodgers. The term "kid gloves" has never been more appropriate. He has thrown just 142 innings as a professional, all in A-ball. Sandy Koufax threw more than that in the first half of 1966. And the second half. And in each half of 1965.
That, of course, was a different era. Unlike Urias' southpaw predecessors who were thrown into the fire and told to swim, the Dodgers are handling Urias with the caution that comes with new information about pitcher usage and young arms. Urias’ workload has been monitored carefully, though 2015 could be the year he gets on a schedule similar to the one Kershaw had during his minor-league ascent. As a 19-year-old, Kershaw threw 122 innings, an amount that would represent a 35-inning jump for Urias and keep him in line with his developmental curve.
Urias, now 18, is ahead of where Kershaw was at this same point, having signed as an international free agent and begun his professional career two years before his American counterpart. Kershaw finished that 19-year-old season in Double-A, where Urias is expected to start at age 18. Despite rumors that he could ascend to the majors and emblazon his chest with cerulean script by this fall, it’s likely in the best interest of Urias and the Dodgers if he finishes the season in Double-A.
But the era in which patience wins out over anticipation has gone the way of the earless helmet and scheduled doubleheaders. Like a senior on prom night, we want things as soon as possible even if our hurry leaves us unfulfilled. Urias is in big-league camp this spring, meaning the attention is only heightened, and mainstream attention is bringing to the masses what those of us in the prospect niche already know.
Pitching on back-field mounds alongside Kershaw spotlights the comparison, and with every dominant season Kershaw turns in, the expectations on whoever is "the next" become more unrealistic. Yet Urias continues to exceed every expectation thrown at him. While scouting reports on him don’t match up with the level of dominance Kershaw has achieved, nobody’s do. Nobody projects to be a Hall of Famer, but we have them nonetheless.
So despite all the unrealistic expectations, despite the increasingly hot glare we shine on prospects, despite Urias' youth and inexperience, and despite the high bar history has set before him, it’s possible that he might be up to the task. Regardless of how this ends up, however, growing up in an unprecedented spotlight and beneath the shadow of legends has created a journey for Urias that few have endured.
Perhaps he’ll be better for it. Or perhaps the weight of history has set us up for disappointment, no matter his success.