If you wander through the clubhouse of a Triple-A team, there’s usually a detectable survival-of-the-fittest vibe in the air. The team is a mixture of players on the way up and players on the way down. There are 24-year-olds who are trying to prove they belong at this level and 34-year-olds hoping they can get one more trip back to the big leagues.
And everyone knows that as much as you want to root for your teammates, there are limited big league jobs. If the big league club needs a pitcher, you want to be the guy who gets the call. Rooting for the team and your teammates comes much easier when you are three or four steps away from the majors.
But in the case of Julio Urias, his teammates knew he was the one.
“When you are in Triple-A, you see the bitter-beer face. There are a lot of veteran guys there. When they say ‘this guy deserves to be in the big leagues,’ you know he deserves to be in the big leagues,” Dodgers pitcher coordinator Rick Knapp said.
The Dodgers will call up Urias, the top pitching prospect in the game, before Friday’s game against the Mets. The 19-year-old Urias, the youngest player in the Pacific Coast League, will become the youngest player in the major leagues.
When Urias makes his debut, he will also be the most unique pitching prospect to arrive in the big leagues in my 13 years at Baseball America. Urias doesn’t necessarily have the highest upside of any pitcher in the minors (Lucas Giolito or Anderson Espinoza come to mind). But he might be the most polished, even though he’s younger than many of the names who will be called in two weeks in the MLB draft. The Fernando Valenzuela comparisons are inescapable because like Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden and very few others, Urias is reaching the big leagues as a teenage pitcher, and because he’s Mexican and a Dodger.
Pitchers are risky. Urias could stumble in his introduction to the big leagues. But there is nothing left for him to prove in Triple-A. The lefthander has not allowed a run in his past 27 innings with Triple-A Oklahoma City. In one of the starts during that stretch he threw six hitless innings. For the season he’s struck out 44 and walked eight. His 1.10 ERA easily leads the Pacific Coast League. His FIP ranks in the top five. He’s striking out 29.7 percent of opposing batters (second best in the PCL behind Archie Bradley’s 29.9 percent).
And in doing so, he’s answered one of the first significant questions he’d faced in his very young career. Urias had been beaten up in a late-season promotion to Triple-A last year–he gave up nine runs in two brief starts for an unsightly 18.69 ERA. It’s the first time he’s been hit that hard in his young pro career.
“When you send a guy to a new level and they struggle, you wonder, did you do the right thing. In his case it was absolutely the right thing. He came back a more seasoned guy. That’s the ideal,” Knapp said.
Urias’ minor league career has been conducted at a pace that seems frenetic. He was pitching in Class A as a 16-year-old. He reached high Class A as a 17-year-old, Double-A as an 18-year-old and now the big leagues while still a teenager.
“Charlie Hough told me years ago, ‘there’s no age on a good pitch.’ This guys is making more and more of them every outing,” Knapp said.
But the Dodgers have actually had to rein him in to keep him from climbing even quicker. Because of his age, the Dodgers have been very careful with Urias. He’s never thrown 100 innings in a season. He’s been kept on very tight pitch counts. And he’s been kept at levels below his ability because it was hard to fathom moving him any quicker. After watching a 16-year-old Urias carve up hitter after hitter, he remarked that he believed Urias was capable of handling Double-A right then.
“Here’s the separator for me—the stuff is a separator, obviously—but this is a great kid whose grounded with family and friends. He talks to the other Mexican pitchers we have in A ball helping them,” Knapp said.
Yes, Urias, the 19-year-old, serves as a veteran mentor for other Mexican pitchers in the Dodgers’ system.
There have been few hiccups and Urias has had a shorter to-do-list of improvement than any other teenage pitcher in the minors. He locates his fastball. He mixes a curveball and a slider that are two distinct pitches thrown with different intents—he’s working to get his slider in under the hands of righthanded hitters. His changeup hasn’t been as sharp this spring as it has been in the past, but it’s a potential plus offering as well.
So Urias’ refinements have been more subtle.
Urias missed some time last year for cosmetic eye surgery and he wasn’t as sharp upon his return as the recovery surgery had required him to stop working out for a while. He gained some weight, but given a chance to get back in shape this offseason, Urias returned to form this spring.
He holds runners better and has a better pickoff move now. Teams used to occasionally get under Urias’ skin and get him too excited. This year, he pitches with a cool, calm and unflappable demeanor.
Urias has the pieces to become an ace. He won’t reach that level this year no matter what—his limited innings will prohibit it. Urias has never pitched into the eighth inning as a starter. He’s never thrown 100 pitches in a game.
But the building blocks are there. Now, he’ll work on the refinements that can only come at the big league level.
“(Clayton) Kershaw didn’t become the Cy Young winner he became when he was in the minor leagues,” Knapp said. “He did that at the major league level. It’s the same with (Justin) Verlander and (Max) Scherzer. They learned that next level of “I am elite” at the major league level.”
Now it’s Urias chance to see if he can be elite. He’s only 19, but he’s ready.
“He’s put his time on the flight simulator. He’s been in the cockpit. He’s been in the co-pilot seat. It’s time for him to fly … We’ll find out if he’s a fighter pilot in a couple of years,” Knapp said.