September 13, 2016
Deep, But Playable
2 Gassed 2 Urias
The Dodgers received a major shot in the arm for their rotation with the return of the best pitcher in baseball. The question is what it means for the rest of their rotation, where the name Manager Dave Roberts could write in most consistently was “TBD.” Rich Hill is healthy for now, and Kenta Maeda has appeared to benefit from the frequent extra day(s) of rest he receives, but beyond that the rotation is a slurry of rookies (both heralded and not), journeymen, and guys working back from injury. This leaves the Dodgers with something of a conundrum on their hands. While they’ve extended their division lead to three games, they still have enough contests against the second-place Giants to be concerned with putting their best team on the field each day. Julio Urias has been one of their best pitchers since his promotion, but he’s bumping up against an impending innings limit, and the Dodgers will have to reckon with how they’re going to address the dual imperatives of making sure Urias can fill a rotation spot for most of next season and beyond, and for maximizing their playoff and World Series chances in 2016. So, do you mess with success? Or do you risk injury either now or down the line?
The Case to Leave Him in the Rotation
I wrote about Urias when he was still a minor leaguer, back in early May, noting that:
The Dodgers might be in a tough position in terms of how they deploy Urias, given his polished nature and present stuff, but there shouldn’t be many qualms about projecting him as a starter long term. That said, It’s clear that his ability to embody that role is going to be compromised in the short term, and holding that against him in terms of lead time, or time to impact, is perfectly reasonable.
We’re 113 innings into Urias’ season and he’s still going strong, recently producing eight strikeouts in six innings of one-run ball against the same Chicago Cubs who waxed him for three home runs in five innings in his second career start. He’s not only pitching consistently despite being in uncharted territory when it comes to innings, he’s pitching consistently well, and has been one of the few Dodgers physically able to take the ball every fifth (or sixth) day.
The Case to Put Him in the Bullpen
Four pitches per inning in the early going might not seem like much, but for someone on a limited pitch count every game—which can expected to be tightened as the season moves forward—it’s a relatively important thing. We should note that there is clearly a small sample that we’re dealing with, but we see that he goes from relatively inefficient in the early innings, to his best in innings three and four, before tiring in the fifth and beyond. Rather than plan for a four- or five-inning playoff start from Urias, he might be more effective not having to pace himself. Airing it out and attacking hitters from the bullpen might enable Urias to overcome the inefficiency at the start of games, and settle into the groove he finds before tiring.
His two games in the bullpen this season consisted of a three-inning outing and another of 2 2/3. If the Dodgers are preparing their team to operate most efficiently in October, they could kill two birds with one stone by allowing Urias to ease off his innings total a bit, while also conditioning him to become a multi-inning reliever who is built around throwing on the playoff schedule, where he could conceivably impact the game more in that role than in a single Game 4 start (which would almost certainly last six innings or less). This is the kind of thinking that’s easy to second guess, as the division isn’t quite sewn up, and the Dodgers would do well to roll out their best option to start on any given night. Still, it’s a tempting thought given the struggles of J.P. Howell and Luis Avilan as LOOGYs, and the recent falterings of the previously untouchable Adam Liberatore. Rookie Grant Dayton has been left as the top left-handed bullpen option. Having Urias on hand as a fireman who could enter against lefties and absorb multiple innings to keep the rest of the bullpen rested and usable in all other situations is tempting.
This might have been less of a dilemma had Scott Kazmir not re-aggravated his neck/rib cage injury in a Triple-A start. As it stands, any playoff rotation will begin with Kershaw-Hill-Maeda, but with Kershaw’s ability to throw on short rest reasonably questionable due to his back injury, it comes down to how the team wants to handle the fourth-starter spot. Even if Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson (or Kazmir) return to health, Urias is probably the guy with the best chance of pitching well in a start. Alternatively, one of those names or De Leon, plus a short hook could minimize any gap between a Urias playoff start and allowing for Urias to impact more than one game for what is likely to be a limited number of innings.
If I’m making the call, I probably make a case to stretch Urias’ innings beyond the 120-130 innings Friedman mentioned, but would opt to have him use those innings as a reliever. Taking care of your players is an admirable and laudable goal, and I wouldn’t blame Urias or his agent for pushing to be careful, but if there’s anything I learned from Jeff Passan’s The Arm, it’s that our limits haven’t really begat a safer environment for pitchers. It’s entirely unclear to me what the additional risk is in Urias throwing 145 innings rather than 120, but assuming he was legitimately on board to do so, I’d want him available to provide a bridge to Kenley Jansen come playoff time.