The Dodgers announced today that teenage LHP Julio Urias will be called up to make his major-league debut on Friday in New York against the defending National League champion Mets. His statistics in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League this year have been cartoonish. In eight appearances, Urias has thrown 41 innings, allowed 24 hits, 8 walks, and accrued 44 strikeouts. He sports a 1.10 ERA and a 0.78 WHIP — versus the PCL averages of 4.36 and 1.40, respectively. All of it at the age of 19, a full eight years younger than the average Pacific Coast Leaguer.
When he debuts on Friday, Urias will be the youngest player in Major League Baseball and the first pitcher to debut as a teenager since Madison Bumgarner in 2009. Not bad for a kid whom the Dodgers discovered in the Mexican League (and later signed for $450,000) on the back end of a scouting trip that also netted them Yasiel Puig.
Urias’ repertoire and usage thereof is advanced. His fastball is plus and will sit 91-95 while touching 97. However, it can be fairly straight, and even features some natural cut at times, but Urias generally commands it down or below the zone and to both sides of the plate. He generates lots of ground balls when he’s not catching hitters looking on the corners or blowing away the ones who struggle with velocity. The heater is complemented by a plus low-80s curveball and an 82-85 mph changeup that is consistently above average. Urias’ usage of his repertoire is just as (if not more) impressive than his pure stuff. You’ll see him back door and back foot the curveball to right-handed hitters, pitch backwards with it to lefties and rarely leave a secondary pitch hanging in a place where it can be punished.
Despite the complete dearth of walks, Urias has had stretches within starts where he loses his line to the plate and his fastball gets away from him. He’s only about 5-foot-10 and, because of this lack of size, his fastball comes in flat if he leaves it up in the zone. If and when major-league hitters — apt to punish poorly located fastballs no matter the velocity — draw first blood from Urias, I expect it will be because of a situation created by this combination.
The Dodgers have handled Urias with care to the delight of Urias’ agent and those of us who err on the side of caution as it pertains to pitcher development. Urias hasn’t thrown more than six innings or 82 pitches in a given outing this year, and the Dodgers seem to have steadfast rules in place regarding his usage. We don’t yet know how those might be stretched now that they’re impacting the big club, but Hyun-Jin Ryu threw 55 pitches in a Triple-A rehab start this week and Brandon McCarthy is expected back in early July despite a minor setback in his Tommy John rehab last week. In other words, it’s certainly possible Urias’ stay in Los Angeles will be abbreviated, or that this will simply be a spot start while they wait for others to get healthy.
Projecting Urias’ development from here is somewhat difficult. This isn’t your industry-standard 6-foot-3, 190-pound teenage pitcher who features both room to fill out and also clearly defined deficiencies on which to work. Urias is physically mature, stocky and devoid of much physical projection. Yet he doesn’t turn 20 until August, so it’s foolish to assume that the cement is dry.
Rather than expecting some sort of velocity spike with age, expect general refinement of the command, of sequencing and of a propensity to work above the hitting zone with the fastball instead of in it. I think it’s also reasonable to expect Urias to add a fourth pitch at some point — I think a cutter would be especially potent — though probably not for a few years.
As things stand right now Urias projects as a #2/3 starter. He has top-of-the rotation potential, but most of his projection relies on technical development and refinement rather than physical maturation. And too often, pitching prospects have unrealistic “future ace” labels hung on them; calling Urias a guy who projects as a #2 starter is no knock on him, but a recognition of how hard it is to achieve ace-level performance. But the Dodgers already have an ace, and if Urias is as good in the short-term as the projections think, he’ll be able to help the Dodgers until they shut him down to protect his arm.
Urias isn’t going to single-handedly save the Dodgers season, but for one night at least, the team will get a look at its future.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.