When Dodger fans talk about “the one that got away,” at least over the last 30 years, they generally mean one of two things. They mean Pedro Martinez, dealt to Montreal for Delino DeShields in 1993 in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history, or they mean Mike Piazza, traded to the Marlins in 1998 thanks to the backhanded maneuvers of a television executive. (Sigh. When some fans swore they would be done with the Dodgers after the Matt Kemp trade, most of us blew that off, but I remember 16-year-old Mike being just crushed by that Piazza deal.)
Sometimes, but not quite so often, Adrian Beltre‘s name comes up as well. You’ve read the title of this post and you know it’s going to be about Julio Urias, but bear with me here. Mere weeks after the Piazza deal, on June 21, 1998, GM Fred Claire and manager Bill Russell were both out. Tommy Lasorda (GM) and Glenn Hoffman (manager) took over. Changes came quickly. Four days later, the pair shook up the coaching staff, replacing Reggie Smith (batting), Glenn Gregson (pitching), and Mark Cresse (bullpen) with Mickey Hatcher, Charlie Hough, and John Shelby.
A day earlier, Lasorda also decided to call up Beltre, who was 78 days past his 19th birthday* and had played all of 64 games above Single-A. With regular third baseman Todd Zeile also off to Florida along with Piazza, the Dodgers had spent the month trying to get by with 35-year-old Bobby Bonilla, who had come back from the Marlins, at the hot corner. (Along with three starts from Juan Castro — yes, that Juan Castro, the one who was seeing playing time for the Dodgers at late as 2011, and eight more from Paul Konerko, speaking of “guys who got away.” He was traded to Cincinnati on July 4, thanks also to Lasorda. 1998 was just the worst. I am not a Tommy Lasorda fan.)[hr gap=””]
*In reality. You might remember the whole controversy after the 1999 season that found that Beltre was actually a year older than reported, a violation knowingly committed by the Dodgers so they could sign him before other teams considered him eligible as a free agent. This LA Times article from Aug. 1998 actually refers to him as being 21.[hr gap=””]
Beltre struggled for the remainder of the season, putting up a 75 wRC+ in 77 games that clearly came before he was ready to be in the big leagues. For the next few years, he mostly frustrated in a pre-nerd stats era, putting up numbers that would be considered outstanding for his age now — 13-23 homers, multiple four-win seasons, great defense — but that were considered disappointing at the time. In 2004, his age-25 season, he exploded, crushing 48 homers and putting up what might be the best offensive season in the entire history of the franchise.
And then he was gone. I’m not interested in re-hashing here how he ended up with Seattle in the winter of 2004-05 while the Dodgers instead landed J.D. Drew. The point is that headed into his age-26 season, he was eligible for free agency. Now, the narrative is that he went to Seattle and flopped, but that’s really not true. After a tough 2005, he rebounded to put up three very good seasons — unloved by those who don’t appreciate defense or park factors — and has now put up five straight seasons of at least 5 WAR. He may very well end up in Cooperstown.
* * *
Anyway, back to the point. Think about how this season might go. Imagine it being July. Urias is blowing hitters away in Double-A. The bullpen is tired or struggling, and the trade market doesn’t appear likely to help. Everyone’s impatiently waiting for Urias to come up, because despite the fact that he’ll only turn 19 on August 12, we’ve literally been hearing about him for years now. You’re thinking about the boosts the Rays and Angels got in 2008 and 2002, respectively, when young arms David Price and Francisco Rodriguez arrived to help push the teams to the World Series.
Call him up, everyone’s going to shout. Call him up now. And maybe, despite his incredible youth, he’d be ready to succeed in the big leagues. Maybe he’d help make an impact immediately. Flags fly forever, and all that. I get it. But what’s not likely to be remembered is the lesson learned from Beltre. In exchange for having a teenager in the big leagues before he’s ready, you’re trading away free agent years later. Which is to say, were the Dodgers better off with Beltre’s initial teen struggles happening in Los Angeles? Or would they have been better off if Beltre wasn’t able to leave after 2004, and had still been around for the next year or two rather than Jose Valentin, Mike Edwards, Norihiro Nakamura, Wilson Betemit, Bill Mueller, and the rest of what became an ugly third base situation before Casey Blake arrived (at the expense of Carlos Santana) midway through 2008.
Because if you want to call up Urias any earlier than the last week or two of the season, that’s what you’re saying. You’re saying you want a few innings of age-18 Urias more than you want a full season of age-24 or -25 Urias, depending on how much service time he’d accumulate in the years to follow. Remember, Price came up on Sept. 14. Rodriguez came up on Sept. 18. Their teams didn’t lose the full year. They pushed them towards “Super 2” status, as Price ended up being, but the Dodgers don’t care about that. And if you don’t think that extra year is important, well, know that the Tigers essentially have a free year of Yoenis Cespedes because Rick Porcello (swapped for Cespedes earlier this winter) fell all of two days short of free agency this year.
I get the inevitable counter-arguments, which will be along the lines that you have no idea what a pitcher will be worth in six years, or that the Dodgers could afford to extend him at that point anyway, and maybe that’s true. But it seems spectacularly unlikely that Urias in the bullpen for part of the season is the difference between this team making the playoffs or not. If you want to say that he’s worth having in the bullpen for the postseason, perhaps, but that’s a different conversation. I want Urias more in 2027 than I do in 2015. I wanted Beltre more in 2005 than I did in 1998. It’s important.
For his part, Don Mattingly is saying the right things:
Mattingly on Urias: “we’ll give him every chance to develop” but doesn’t anticipate he’ll be with #Dodgers (big club) this season.
— Alanna Rizzo (@alannarizzo) February 21, 2015
We’ll see if he’s able to say the same should the pressure be building to promote Urias this summer.