Entering spring training this year, the Dodgers had many position battles to figure out and roster questions to answer, but probably none bigger than what to do with phenom pitcher Julio Urias. There was no doubt that the 20-year old would not be able to complete a full season’s workload this year and would likely need to be capped by some sort of innings limit.
Many options were on the table for how exactly to handle that situation. Was he going to start the year in the rotation and be shut down sometime mid-season before returning? Perhaps he would come out of the bullpen? Or, would he initially be sent down to the minors and not brought back up until later in the year?
Although it hasn’t been formally announced yet, the Dodgers are expected to break spring training without Urias on their opening day roster. They will likely allow him to progress in an extended spring training program, or maybe even start the year in Oklahoma City before he makes his season debut with the Dodgers.
For all intents and purposes, this is the right call. As much as every Dodgers fan is anxious to see Urias out there on the mound every fifth day, a little patience is needed. Delaying his arrival this season is not only what’s best for Urias, but also what’s best for the Dodgers.
The overall goal for the team should be to have Urias available come October. Whatever option the Dodgers decide to take with him, it should allow for this goal. The one thing they want to avoid is a situation like the one the Washington Nationals had in 2012, where they were forced to shutdown Stephen Strasburg in September, ending his season before the playoffs started. Before being shutdown, Strasburg was dominating that year. He was 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and was striking out hitters at an 11.1 K/9 rate. No doubt the Nationals could have used his services in the post season, as they would go on to lose their first round series against the Cardinals in five games. They have faced criticism about their choice ever since.
Coming off of Tommy John surgery, Washington wanted to be extra careful with their prized young ace, and rightfully so. Their mistake, however, was choosing to let Strasburg pitch from the beginning of the season, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to make it a full year without far exceeding their established innings limit. By his last start on September 7th, Strasburg had accumulated 159 innings. The Nationals made the decision to shut him down completely and their best pitcher ended up watching the team’s playoff games from the dugout.
The New York Mets were almost in a similar situation just a couple of years ago with Matt Harvey. The debate whether or not to let him continue to pitch into October was only a question at all because he had been in the starting rotation since April, racking up 190 innings in the regular season.
It’s almost as if these teams didn’t know ahead of time that protecting their cherished young arms was going to take some planning, especially if they wanted to have them pitch in the post season.
It appears the Dodgers do have a plan for Urias, and hopefully that plan will allow him to be available in October. Assuming Urias is allowed to pitch somewhere around 150-175 innings in 2017, delaying his major league debut this year makes the most sense. It wouldn’t be logical for the Dodgers to bring Urias out of the bullpen here and there when he’s primarily going to be used as a starter. Some players might succeed in that type of role, but it’s probably not the most ideal situation for a young pitcher to keep bouncing back and forth between the starting rotation and bullpen.
Disrupting a pitcher’s routine can hinder their ability to get comfortable and could negatively affect their performance. And maybe that’s why Urias had better numbers last year as a starter than as a reliever, especially when his spot was guaranteed and he wasn’t being shuttled back and forth to Oklahoma City.
It also doesn’t make much sense to have Urias start the year in the rotation and then shut him down sometime in the middle of the year, just to bring him back up later. Who knows how long the shutdown would have to be? Having to build back up arm strength and stamina in order to be ready to start pitching again seems counter-intuitive.
Another aspect that plays a part in the decision to bring Urias along slowly this year is the amount of starting pitching depth the Dodgers currently have. The first month or two of the season could give the Dodgers an opportunity to see what they have with Brandon McCarthy, Alex Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and (deep breath) Scott Kazmir. With presumably only one rotation spot available once Urias comes aboard, this could give these guys ample time to audition for that position and the Dodgers should be able to get a good gauge of who’s pitching well by that point.
So, all things considered, there really is only one logical option for the Dodgers at this point. Letting Urias stay in extended spring training means they may have to wait a month or two for him to arrive. But it also means that he should be ready to go when October baseball comes around, and that’s what matters in the long run.