What should Dodgers expect from top prospect Julio Urias?
Baseball’s top pitching prospect is heading to the majors. On Thursday morning, the Dodgers announced that 19-year-old lefthander Julio Urias will start for them on Friday in their series opener against the Mets at Citi Field. That game will kick off what could be a fantastic exhibition of pitching prowess in Queens this weekend, with Urias opposing New York's Jacob deGrom on Friday night, Japanese import Kenta Maeda going against Noah Syndergaard on Saturday night, and Clayton Kershaw—looking to finish off the best month of his tremendous career—facing Bartolo Colon on Sunday night.
Kershaw and Syndergaard took the top two spots in my National League Cy Young award rankings Thursday morning, but Urias is now the story of the series. Before the season, he ranked No. 4 on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list, higher than any other pitcher. Competing lists ranked him just behind Nationals righthander Lucas Giolito, but factoring in the performance of those two pitchers through the first two months of the 2016 season gives Urias a clear edge. While the 21-year-old Giolito—who had Tommy John surgery in August 2012—is compiling middling results and an inflated walk rate in Double A, Urias is utterly dominating the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League in Triple A. In seven starts and one three-inning relief appearance, he has posted a 1.10 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 5.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio, that last thanks to 44 strikeouts against eight walks in 41 innings. Even more remarkably, Urias hasn’t allowed a run since April 22, arriving in the majors with an active 27-inning scoreless streak.
Urias has shown preternatural ability ever since the Dodgers discovered him in his native Mexico as a 15-year-old in June 2012 (on the same scouting trip that yielded Yasiel Puig, no less). Officially signed five days after his 16th birthday in August 2012, Urias debuted in full-season ball in '13 and posted a 2.48 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings and a 4.19 K/BB at the age of 16. At 17, he became the youngest participant in the Futures Game, during a season in which he dominated High A with a 2.36 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings. He moved to Double A at the age of 18 and had a 2.77 ERA and again delivered more strikeouts (74) than innings pitched (68 1/3), earning a promotion to Triple A.
Urias succeeds because of phenomenal stuff. He has a mid-90s fastball that can spike to 97 mph. His changeup and curve are both swing-and-miss pitches, the latter of which he can vary in terms of speed and break to keep hitters off balance. He also has excellent control, as evidenced by his 1.8 walks per nine innings this year, and a deceptive delivery. On top of all of that, he has received extremely high marks for his maturity and for his ability to keep an even keel on the mound. Lean but not scrawny at 6'0", 215 pounds, Urias is very nearly the perfect pitching prospect.
As a 19-year-old Mexican lefthander, Urias will also automatically generate comparisons to Fernando Valenzuela, who fit the same description when he reached the majors in 1980. It’s worth remembering, however, that Fernandomania didn’t kick in until the Valenezuela threw shutouts in five of his first six starts the next season, after turning 20. Dodgers fans specifically (and baseball fans in general) expecting Urias to cause a similar sensation this year are cautioned to be patient. As good as Urias may be, the adjustment to the majors can be a difficult one for even the most talented pitchers, regardless of age.
Indeed, the recent history of pitchers reaching the majors in their age 19-season is not a wholly encouraging one. Felix Hernandez and Madison Bumgarner are on that list (though the latter’s debut actually came after his 20th birthday), but in the last quarter century, the only other pitchers to do so were Dylan Bundy (a six-batter cameo in 2012), Rick Ankiel, Matt Riley, Todd Van Poppel and Edwin Jackson. The 1980s yielded Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden, but both experienced early declines and were little more than league-average starters by the second half of their 20s. The Dodgers are well aware of that history and dragged their heels on Urias as much as they could, but his talent has won out.
Urias will slot into Alex Wood’s place in the rotation Friday night, with Wood being scratched due to triceps soreness; he will instead start on Monday against the Cubs. As to whether or not Urias remains in the majors for a second start, that’s likely dependent upon how he and Wood perform in those upcoming starts. Most likely, Los Angeles will send Urias back to Triple A if Wood—who has a 2.67 ERA with outstanding peripherals in his last five starts—is healthy. The main issue there is durability. Urias has never reached 90 innings in a season and has yet to throw more than six innings in a single start this year. His highest pitch count this year is 82, and the available evidence suggests he has never thrown 90 pitches in a start in his young career.
Urias’s stuff may be ready for the majors, but his arm and body still need to be built up to endure a full-time rotation spot at the major league level. As exciting as it may be that he’s making his major league debut this weekend, it may be a couple more seasons before he truly arrives as a starting pitcher in the bigs.