Dodgers shouldn’t rely on Julio Urias for significant bullpen innings this season

Photo: Stacie Wheeler

The Dodgers’ bullpen is still a question mark, and with the non-waiver trade deadline having come and gone, it’s going to be hard for them to upgrade this month.

They acquired John Axford at the deadline and, well, his Dodger debut didn’t go well (1/3 IP, 6 R). But that’s a small sample size, but even at the time of the deal, I wondered if his addition would be enough. Sure, Tony Cingrani still exists (kinda) and Josh Fields is coming back, but it’s hard to rely on either of them to be either healthy or terribly effective.

I wrote about the what might be next for the Dodgers bullpen on Thursday.

“Still, this bullpen is not without its flaws. We saw last night that Alexander — despite being incredible recently — is human, and he had his worst outing since the end of June. But unlike Brandon Morrow last year, the Dodgers don’t have that strong, unquestioned bridge to Kenley Jansen. They have guys who are good but volatile (which describes basically every reliever, but it’s magnified with the Dodgers).”

“They didn’t acquire a starting pitcher either, so moving some starters to the bullpen won’t be as easy. It’s still going to happen because they only need four starters in the postseason, but I’m not sure how much we can count on the guys to transition smoothly.”

All that is still true. Walker Buehler, Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling and/or Alex Wood are the prime candidates for a move, should it become necessary. But all three of those starters have been solid in the rotation. Buehler has been great as a starter (and has the highest ceiling), Maeda has been Dodgers’ best starting pitcher overall, Stripling, while currently on the disabled list, leads the team in pitching WAR, and Wood leads the team in innings pitched. Despite that, there will be at least a couple of them who will be required to move to the bullpen.

But something the Dodgers might be eyeing is having Julio Urias pitch out of the bullpen in September.

“Julio Urias has been discussed as an option in the bullpen, and Dave Roberts has already said he’ll come back in that capacity, but there’s no way the Dodgers can rely on him or expect significant/stressful innings from him coming off the shoulder surgery. The goal for him is still to be ready to go at the start of the 2019 season.”

I still firmly believe that, and I’m even more in that camp after the latest report from FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen.

Urias was reportedly up to 94 MPH in his first rehab appearance for the Arizona Rookie League Dodgers. His second outing, however, didn’t produce the same results (if the original report was accurate). From Longenhagen:

“His fastball sat 88-91 and topped out at 92, well below the velocity band he has displayed throughout his career, which was typically in the 92-95 range. A scout who was in attendance at Urias’s first rehab outing earlier in the week told me they also had Urias topping out at 92, which conflicts with what was reported just after that outing. Urias’s fastball command was much better in this brief look than it was in his often frustrating big-league appearances, and it has flat, bat-missing plane up in the zone. Overall. though, it’s a 45 fastball right now.”

Yeah, that’s not great. Longenhagen said Urias’ offspeed offerings weren’t as good as they were before surgery, but they’re still in the 45-50 range while flashing plus.

“Obviously, Urias is returning from a serious shoulder injury, and it’s possible his stuff will tick up with continued work. The Dodgers expect him to contribute to the bullpen in September and he need only wield a competent breaking ball remain left-handed for the next eight weeks to do that. Long term, it’s hard to say what’s going to happen here. Urias was once 6 fastball, 6 breaking ball, above-average changeup, plus command projection. Right now he’s a bunch of 45s and 50s.”

The first sentence is key. It’s possible he’s just working off the rust. But the injury he had to his left shoulder — a tear in his anterior shoulder capsule — is quite significant. The surgery went well, but that doesn’t mean he’ll ever regain his old form.

Here’s some video from Longenhagen from Urias’ outing over the weekend:

Here’s a short list of pitchers who have had the same procedure as Urias in recent years (age of surgery in parenthesis):

Let’s see: One perfect game (Braden), one former uber prospect (Harden), one borderline Hall of Famer (Santana) and one really tall guy (Young). Braden and Harden never pitched in the majors after the surgery. Santana posted a 4.85 ERA and 4.09 FIP in 117 innings in 2012 (his age-33 season). Young was the most “successful” after the surgery. He threw 564 more innings and pitched to a 4.17 ERA and an ugly 5.09 FIP. He never had anywhere near the stuff Urias had, but the results for these guys post-surgery is less than encouraging. Then again, none of them were nearly as young as Urias was when he had the procedure (almost 21), so if you’re looking for some hope, that’s it. But outside of Young, none of these guys were ever the same.

This is from Mike Piellucci of VICE Sports back in June of 2017.

One medical study of the surgery tracked a five-player sample with an average age of 33.5 years old, a byproduct of the reality that ‘anterior capsular tears can occur in older throwing athletes.’ Julio Urias, of course, is none of things, which brings about a particularly jagged irony. Once again, he is an anomaly, preposterously ahead of schedule and now possibly doomed well before his time, too. No pitcher this good, this young, has broken down in quite this way. The only way out is for Urias to keep doing what he’s been doing, to defy established convention once more. Here, at last, there’s hope. 20-year-old bodies heal faster than 30-something ones, so youth is certainly working in Urias’ favor. Dodgers president Andrew Friedman also told the Los Angeles Times’ Andy McCullough that the tear is in Urias’ shoulder is acute instead of due to excessive wear, something that should drastically reduce the amount of scar tissue left in his shoulder. These are rather threadbare reassurances, but they are better than nothing.”

Something to keep in mind as Urias progresses and recovers from the injury.

——

I’m still of the opinion that if Urias throws in the majors this season, it needs to be in an environment that has the least amount of stress. With the Dodgers in a close division race with the Diamondbacks and Rockies, that might be hard to accomplish. His 30-day rehab will be up in the beginning of September (just in time for rosters to expand), and the Dodgers will have to decide to either put him back on the disabled list or activate him and either place him on the active roster or option him to the minors.

The problem with the minors option is the minor-league season ends in September, save for some playoff games. The Quakes are the only team to have clinched a playoff berth. The OKC Dodgers are currently leading the PCL Northern Division by two games, while the Drillers are in first place in the second-half standings in the Texas League North Division by five games. So, it looks like there could be some playoff action if the Dodgers option Urias. But if those are the choices, it might be best just to option Urias to the minors and keep him at Camelback Ranch.

I’ve always been a bit conservative when it comes to injuries and rushing players back (Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Justin Turner, etc.), and while I’ve wanted the Dodgers to turn Urias loose in previous years, this is a situation that requires more delicate care.

——

If Urias doesn’t pitch in the majors this year, that’s OK. The primary goal should be getting him as healthy as possible for the 2019 season. If that means he doesn’t contribute at the MLB level — or contributes very minimally — then so be it.

The bottom line here is that Dodgers are probably going to have to look elsewhere for bullpen strengthening after passing on some of the premium relievers at the non-waiver trade deadline.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.