The Situation: The Dodgers’ thin rotation took at least a brief hit with the announcement that, fresh off a 13-strikeout performance in his last start, Alex Wood would have his turn skipped on Friday on account of ominous “triceps tendinitis.” He’s been bumped to Monday for now, and with Ross Stripling procedurally demoted to Oklahoma City in the wake of The 17-Inning Game the Dodgers have elected to turn the ball over to a teenager for the first time since Fernando Valenzuela in 1980. Urias will make his big-league debut riding a streak of 27 innings since allowing his last earned run.
Background: Signed as part of a package deal by the Dodgers on a scouting trip through Mexico in the summer of 2012, Urias is…unique. There just isn’t much in the way of valuable precedent for what he has managed to accomplish at such tender ages in his career to date. He has rung up five and a half strikeouts for every walk this season at Triple-A while pitching eight (that’s right eight) years younger than his average league-mate. His ERA, WHIP, and batting average-against all pace the circuit.
Scouting report: 17-year-old pitchers aren’t supposed to dominate the California League. They’re not supposed to be anywhere near High-A, really, and no pitcher is ever supposed to truly dominate the California League anyway. Yet here I am, about to talk about how Julio Urias dominated the California League at 17 when I caught him for three starts a couple years ago. He was brilliant in two of those outings, he survived the third one, and it was that latter effort that really gave the best glimpse behind the curtain at the kind of talent we’re talking about here. Against a weak-hitting Inland Empire lineup that day, Urias fought his command for much of his four inning stint, ultimately limiting the damage to a long two-run homer by 66ers’ catcher Zach Wright. He struggled to hit his release point and get the ball down consistently from the start, and when coupled with a shrinking strike zone as the game wore on, the result was a visibly frustrated teenager by the third inning. He worked 91-94 with his fastball, showing an advanced ability to manipulate the pitch with both run and cut. Command of the pitch came and went, and he struggled to finish it consistently, letting it leak to the arm-side frequently. Hitters generated loud contact on a handful of those mistakes, including the aforementioned dinger on a 92 mile-an-hour offering that was center cut and belt high. His curveball was a nasty pitch, even then, and it kept him in this game. Urias toggled the velocity between 77 and 82 with a hard, sharp break that came late and tight. He showed multiple depths and velocities for this pitch within the same at-bat, particularly to left-handed hitters. There was little obvious feel for his changeup in this start, as he routinely left it out of the strike zone up and to his arm side in the early going before subsequently shelving it for most of the remainder of his appearance.
Ultimately his response to adversity and duress was the takeaway from this start. He was frustrated with his stuff and the umpire’s zone for much of the night, yet remained poised and ultimately executed the pitches he needed to execute. He identified early on that his curveball would save the day, and he leaned on it accordingly, pitching backwards off of it in his second time through the order. After the long ball, he responded with a mature approach to the next batter, dropping two straight hooks into the zone to get ahead, pumping a controlled 91 mile-an-hour running fastball on the hands for a foul, and coming right back with a front-door bender for a called strike three. At the start of his fourth and final frame he emptied the tank, dialing up his velocity to 94-95 with clear intent to end the inning quickly. When a hit batter and walk extended the frame (and his pitch count) with two outs he again dialed the velocity back with a runner in scoring position, ultimately ending the threat with his best change of the night, a 3-2 dandy at 83 that he pinned to the outside corner for a swinging strikeout. That he remained confident enough to throw that pitch in that situation after struggling with it all night said an awful lot spoke volumes.
True to the form of a prodigy, he’s improved considerably in the two years since. The raw stuff has improved a tick as he’s matured physically, with the fastball now showing plus-plus potential touching 97 and sitting in the mid-90s, and both secondaries projecting to true plus. The command and control have both taken positive steps with more repetition as well, to where he’s currently walking less than two-per-nine at Triple-A. Based on Urias’ demonstrated ability to successfully adapt at every rung of the ladder thus far, it should surprise no one if he is able to produce quality results out of the gate. This is an elite talent getting his shot at an absurdly young age for a reason
Immediate Big-League Future: It is unclear at this point how long a stay this will be for Urias. Wood’s arm issues may or may not develop into something serious, Stripling will be eligible to re-join the club in time for what would be the next turn for this rotation slot, and further off in the wings Hyun-Jin Ryu has begun his rehab process (recently throwing four scoreless in Triple-A, touching 89 mph). And beyond the question of immediate opportunity, the only remaining “knock” on Urias at this point is the modest workload to which he’s been subjected as the club has eased his development along. Craig Goldstein touched on this in much greater depth a couple weeks ago, and the punchline (which I agree with) is that he’s not on track for an innings accumulation that is out of whack with where other topline hurlers were at his age, and barring wonky mechanics (which he doesn’t have) or size-based durability concerns (of which there are none) this red flag is more of a salmon windsocket. Still, a cap of around 120 total innings is probable, and the Dodgers will have several options to parse out those frames.
Manager Dave Roberts has already hinted at the possibility of a bullpen role for the youngster this summer, and given his Triple-A dominance helping out the big club in that kind of capacity may very well be the best role. For now we’ll either see Urias return to Triple-A in short order, with a return to Chavez Ravine penciled in for the summer months, or, if the situation and performance dictates it, perhaps spot a start or three right now before immediately transitioning into a multi-inning asset out of the bullpen. —Wilson Karaman
Fantasy Take: We know what Julio Urias will be long-term, as much as we know what any pitching prospect is poised to become. Both Bret and I ranked Urias as our no. 2 dynasty league SP prospect before the season began, and oddly enough Urias’ domination of Triple-A at the age of 19 has done nothing but raise his stock since. We don’t need to elaborate on his dynasty value because he’s not available in your dynasty league, and because for a long while now, just about everyone who plays our game has been monitoring Urias’ progress. He’s going to be really good.
We do need to talk about 2016, though, and as high as Urias’ long-term ceiling and floor are, he’s not a great bet to provide tremendous value to fantasy players this season. Wilson discussed Urias’ workload above, and it’s a very real concern for our purposes. It’s hard to see him logging more than, say, 50 innings in the majors this year, and even that might be a stretch. When he does pitch in the majors he’ll generally be doing so in a favorable park and in front of a good team, but if you want to get deep into contextual factors, Urias is likely to struggle to earn wins thanks to his inability (or unfamiliarity with) pitching deep into games, and the Dodgers uneven bullpen.
There’s also the matter of how long Urias is slated to stay in the rotation even in the short-term, and his prospects are dubious. Alex Wood was only bumped a couple days and, Ross Stripling and Hyun-Jin Ryu should be back at some point in the next ~two weeks. At that point it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Urias head back to Triple-A or perhaps even enjoy a stint in the Dodgers bullpen. Either way, in redraft leagues, you won’t be able to use him.
Streaming Urias in favorable matchups is fine, as is spending, say, $5-8 FAAB on him on the off-chance he’s does log 7-10 starts this season. But for as good as Urias is, he won’t be your savior this offseason, and you’re best off not blowing your FAAB or burning a high waiver priority on an arm who’s unlikely to add much beyond a decent ERA and a handful of strikeouts. —Ben Carsley