Julio Urias looks strong in first spring start, but his 2019 role is still unknown

Photo: Stacie Wheeler

It has been a long road back for Julio Urias. The former uber prospect missed most of the last two seasons after undergoing shoulder surgery. He did return late last season and was a factor — out of the bullpen — in the playoffs. But his future still lies in the rotation.

A week ago, Urias was all but ticketed for Triple-A to get fully stretched out (again). But with Clayton Kershaw‘s status unclear, there’s a chance Urias could break camp with the team. Don’t believe me? Here’s Dave Roberts on the subject:

Manager Dave Roberts said “the door’s open” for Julio Urías to start the season in the Dodgers’ starting rotation. ‘Absolutely,’ Roberts said after Urias pitched a 1-2-3 inning in Wednesday’s start against Oakland. ‘It’s unfair to put limits on him as far as the potential to open the season. Right now, he’s doing everything he possibly can. The door’s open for him. The opportunity will present itself if it’s supposed to. We’ve said from the start of spring, we’re seven or eight starting pitchers deep. Fortunately, we don’t have to make that decision right now.’

That was courtesy of Ken Gurnick.

Not only did Urias throw a perfect inning in his first spring outing, there was this:

Nut.

Urias sitting in the mid-90s sure is a thing. He has averaged 93.3 MPH on his fastball in his career. Yes, this was a small sample size, but it’s awfully encouraging. I doubt he sits there if he’s expected to go 5-6 innings, but it appears his shoulder is plenty healthy.

Outside of Walker Buehler, Urias is the most talented pitcher on the entire team. His combination of stuff and makeup is almost unmatched. I think we forget just how great a prospect he was. Oh, and he’s still just 22 years old. He’s younger than four of my Top 5 Dodger pitching prospects, and he already has a nice resume of work, even if it has been limited.

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So there’s a chance Urias could make us say “Clayton who?” to start the season, especially if Kershaw is hurt for an extended period of time. But we also have to pump the brakes a bit because Urias is going to be on an innings restriction.

We’ve been down this road before. I’ve written a lot about it over the years. And while I’d love nothing better than for Urias to go out there for 180-plus innings, that just isn’t realistic. Let’s try to draw some loose parallels between Urias and Buehler’s comeback.

Buehler had Tommy John surgery shortly after being drafted. He threw five innings in his first season back (age-21 season), 88 2/3 in his second and was all the way up to 177 in his third (or second full-season) — which includes the postseason. Urias threw 22 innings last season (age-21 season, postseason included), so if he’s going to be on a similar path as Buehler, we could expect close to 100 innings this season for Urias (roughly the same percentage jump Buehler made from his first to second year). But Urias already has a bit of a track record, so maybe the Dodgers feel they can comfortably get to 120 innings.

If that’s the case, and assuming he begins the season in the rotation and averages five innings per start, he’d be out of innings by his 24th start — roughly sometime in mid-to-late August. That means he wouldn’t be available for a postseason run.

More likely then, the Dodgers will continue to bounce him between the rotation and bullpen so that he’s available for the postseason. I get it, but I’m really tired of them playing that game with him. If they really want him to be available, maybe he should stick around at Camelback Ranch in extended spring training until mid-May (or later). While it wouldn’t do much for him developmentally, it could preserve his arm so that he’s available in October. That potentially hurts the Dodgers for the first two months of the season, but I’d rather it be one certain way rather than an uncertain, undefined role.

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Urias’ injury was more serious than TJS. He’s coming back from a shoulder procedure that not a lot of pitchers make it back from. Luckily, he’s younger than any pitcher who has suffered his injury, so maybe this situation will be different.

If the Dodgers think they can get more than 120 innings out of Urias — maybe 150? — safely and with no lasting, negative impact, then good. I’m not privy to their discussions or thinking. But while it would be a shame for Urias to not break camp with the team pitching in the rotation, if it helps him get all the way back from the shoulder procedure and allows him to be available for a (hopefully) deep postseason run, it might be for the best. His long-term health should be the top priority.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. It’s not even March, so let’s see how the next 30 days play out.

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.