Dodgers Offseason: What Can We Expect from Julio Urias in 2017?
Maybe it was Corey Seager's dominant rookie season.
Maybe it was because the Los Angeles Dodgers' other prized prospect was only rushed to the major leagues because the team's rotation underwent an absurd number of injuries.
Maybe it was because he was dealt the toughest hand imaginable when his first two starts were road games in New York and Chicago.
Or maybe it was because the hype surrounding him and the shadow of the legend he so closely resembles had grown far beyond realistic proportions.
Whatever the cause, Julio Urias somehow flew under the radar in 2016. Even more shockingly, he was really good for most of his rookie season. Take out those two starts against the Mets and Cubs, when Urias allowed nine runs (eight earned) over a combined 7.2 innings. From June 7th on, Urias recorded a 2.73 ERA, 2.60 FIP, and a 77/26 strikeout to walk ratio in 69.1 innings. The Dodgers limited his appearances to fits and spurts in order to keep his innings down; Urias never went beyond six innings in a game and only reached that mark twice. Even so, Urias wound up throwing 122 total innings between AAA and the majors last season, nearly 40 more than his previous high of 87.
Normally, a pitcher that young with so few miles on his arm would still be in double-A, slowly being brought along so that by the time he got called up to the show, he would have enough durability to consistently throw 5-6 innings every game. The problem with Urias, if it can even be called a problem, is that he's already too damn good for minor league competition, so he's going to have to build up his innings workload in the majors. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman touched on the difficulty of this this in a recent interview with MLB Network:
"It's going to be tricky. We're not out of the woods yet. I've never been around a pitcher this advanced, this young. It was a constant source of conversation, a lot of different meetings on it ... It's going to be an ongoing thing for at least the next couple of years, and it's because of just how polished and good he is coupled with how young (he is)."
Friedman also revealed that the team has challenged Urias to "work as hard as he possibly can to put himself in a position to add even more innings than what we otherwise would" over the offseason. So what does that mean for 2017?
If Urias was to increase his number of innings pitched at the same rate as last season, he would end up with 158 frames pitched (excluding playoffs) in 2017. But the Dodgers are returning virtually all of their starting pitcher depth from 2016 and probably won't break their own record for most players on the disabled list that they set last year.
In other words, it's likely that Urias starts the season in either the minors or the bullpen while the Dodgers roll with a veteran-heavy rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Scott Kazmir, and Brandon McCarthy. Given that every single one of those guys has injury concerns, so Urias probably works his way into that group before too long. Once he does, a workload of somewhere between 140 and 150 innings seems much more likely.
As for his performance, Urias only figures to get better. As you already know, 2016 was his age-19 season. Among pitchers who reached the major leagues at that age or younger, only four recorded a higher level of wins above replacement (h/t Craig Edwards of FanGraphs). Here's a list of them:
MLB Innings Pitched
That's good company. Gooden led the Mets to a World Series title in '86, Blyleven's in the Hall of Fame, and Hernandez has become a superstar in Seattle. Don't let Urias's relatively low WAR faze you, either: it's a counting stat, so when you factor in the number of innings pitched, Urias is producing value at a rate either higher than or equal to everyone else on that list except Gooden.
But there's a cautionary tale on that list too. Nolan's rookie season turned out to be the best of his career, which was soon derailed by injury. Not that the Dodgers' front office needs any more reminders of how quickly the health of a pitcher can fade when the team also employs Fernando Valenzuela as a Spanish-language broadcaster. After his legendary 191-inning 1981 campaign that landed him rookie of the year, a Cy Young, and a World Series ring, Valenzuela threw over 250 innings in each of the next five seasons. After that, he collapsed, and struggled with arm troubles and ineffectiveness for the next decade.
The Dodgers' leadership is nothing if not focused on the long term. So as much as fans may have wanted to see Urias become Fernandomania 2.0, the Dodgers would rather have someone who can eventually join Kershaw at the top of the rotation for years to come.
Still, Urias is poised to make a big impact in 2017. He's still a work in progress, but he's so talented that it's not hard to imagine him posting a 2.50 ERA over, say, 140 big league innings in the upcoming season. It may not be as flashy as Fernandomania, but it would be invaluable to a Dodgers team contending for a championship.