2014 saw Julio Urias make the difficult leap from well regarded curiosity to arguably the best left-handed starter in the minor leagues, all while pitching in the offense-friendly California League as a 17-year-old. That isn’t to suggest that Urias wasn’t already a top rated prospect — he entered the year as Baseball America’s 51st best prospect — but to take yet another significant step forward at an uncharted age-playing level relationship should be seen as a remarkable achievement. Plaudits aside, just what type of potential can we forecast for an 18-year-old seemingly on the doorstep of the major leagues?
In a league where many of the top arms in the Dodgers’ system put up ERAs north of 4.00, Urias separated himself as a prospect by posting dominant numbers across the board, and displaying a better three pitch mix than any arm in the system. The primary weapon Urias employees is a fastball from 91-93 that he commands well for a prospect at any age, let alone as a 17-year-old. His fastball has armside run and sink, and though it’s not as electric a pitch as Holmes or Anderson’s fastball, his pitch grades out higher for his ability to command it up and down the zone. Urias showed velocity as high as 97 mph in a shorter stint (in this case the Future’s Game), though the pitch isn’t likely to make a significant jump from its present point as he ages (more on this later).
Urias’ best strikeout pitch right now might be his curveball. He exhibits better command of the pitch than he does the change-up, but will need to work to improve in this area. The break has a tighter slider-like action at the higher end of his velocity, and a more true curve shape at the lower end, around 80 mph. He can drop the pitch in for a strike and generate swings and misses with the pitch. I don’t think I’d place as high a present grade on the pitch as I’ve seen in some reports, but do believe that with better command the pitch can be a solid 60 grade offering.
As for a future strikeout pitch, Urias’ change-up has the most potential to develop and improve. It’s already a highly effective pitch now, and for his age, having a change-up of this quality is rarely seen. His command of the pitch is presently below average; the pitch has quite a bit of fade to it and he doesn’t seem to trust it as often lower in the zone, causing him to leave it up. I also haven’t seen him challenge many right-handers under the hands with the pitch, instead preferring to fish for chase swings away. I like Urias’ arm speed and deception on the pitch as a whole, though at times he does look to slow his arm down. To his credit, he throws the pitch often and understands the importance of the pitch, making his fastball all the more difficult with a 10+ mph difference.
While attacking hitters with his fastball, Urias has shown a high aptitude for pitching by mixing in his change-up and curve at any point of the count to keep hitters off balance. He pitches competitively but exudes a calm demeanor on the mound. Occasionally from the stretch he did appear to dial up the effort and speed up his arm and pitch with a bit of a head whack, but it didn’t appear to hamper his command as much as you might expect.
Urias has a smooth delivery with almost a rock-and-fire approach. At his best, he has a high leg kick and stiff plant leg, which raises his release point, but he still manages to stay on top of his pitches. He has a tendency to rush through his delivery early in the game, where he appears the most amped up, and as he pitches more innings and games in the coming years, will need watch this overexertion and maximize the use of his arm. Urias pitches from a ¾ slot and keeps his slot consistent from fastball to curve to change.
While his age suggests a limitless ceiling, Urias’ body type could mean he’s closer to a finished product athletically. Urias looks bigger than his 5’11, 160-pound list size, but he’s not likely to sprout a few inches and gain several pounds, putting his stuff over the top. He’s a unique combination of rare 18 year old ready for Double A and lower ceiling body that isn’t likely to develop beyond adding mature weight. The realistic scenario is Urias developing enough strength to hold up over the course of a season and have the necessary stamina to pitch in the top-middle of a rotation, but it’s not likely Urias starts throwing 99 mph at age 21.
His size is not the only thing that makes him unique; there is also the difficulty to judge him against his peers. On age, Urias would count 2015 draftees Brady Aiken, Ashe Russell, and Justin Hooper as part of his prospect demographic. From a pure stuff standpoint, I could make a case for all three having better fastballs, and Aiken and Russell possibly better breaking balls. However, while these guys face high school or junior college hitters this spring, Urias will be pitching to Double-A hitters, just one long step from the major leagues. The other three don’t have the command of their repertoire that Urias has, but they haven’t been forced to by the talent they face. Urias is growing up in unfamiliar surroundings to like-aged players.
Taking everything into consideration, just what is Urias’ upside? If you strictly compare age to performance, you might feel like we’re looking at a generational talent. However, if you look at present stuff versus potential limitations in growth due to size/frame, Urias might fall "short" to just becoming a No. 2 or elite No. 3 starter. I tend to fall on the latter, seeing Urias as having the upside of a Sonny Gray, or the pitching characteristics and style of Hyun-jin Ryu; both fantastic pitchers capable of 3-4 WAR seasons. Urias is potentially even more valuable, given that he will be ready for the majors 3-4 years ahead of the typical development curve, and should the Dodgers choose to lock him in to long-term deals, and health willing, could have a peak performance window four years greater than comparable arms.
Urias has yet to throw 100 innings in a season, so though he’s proven ready to take on Double-A, he is not likely to be conditioned to go further than that, namely the September MLB roster. It’s not out of the question that Urias could run into some adversity at the Double-A level, especially if command of his off-speed continues to lag behind his fastball.
Within the last week, both manager Don Mattingly and general manager Farhan Zaidi said it was unlikely Urias would pitch in the majors in 2015.
"I don't think that is part of the plan," Mattingly said. "With our guys you want to give them the best chance to develop, so that when they do come it's not back and forth. Everybody really has high hopes for him, and nobody wants to see him rushed."
Barring injury, Urias’ 2015 should be another sign of things to come, furthering the frenzy and clamor for Urias to don the Dodger home whites in Chavez Ravine, a moment not likely to come until 2016.