Did we really learn anything new about Julio Urias in 2015? While that’s obviously hyperbole, Urias once again proved too polished for his older peers yet still a fair distance from shouldering the type of workload needed to make him valuable to a contender at this very moment. That doesn’t make him any less elite of a prospect, nor does it preclude him from reaching the majors this year. It does, however, leave one last major hurdle for Urias to leap in 2016 before we can expect him to live up to his potential as an upper rotation stalwart, as stamina might be the only missing skill from his 80-grade profile.
Next to Jose De Leon, I saw a fair amount of Urias this past year to be very comfortable with my projection of Urias’ future value. You might notice from the rankings list that I only grade Urias’ upside as a 70, and though I’ll have more on that in a minute, it does reflect the amount exposure I had to Urias compared to Holmes. Despite Urias actually being younger, he’s less a "ball of clay" than Holmes and his polish suggests a distinct type of pitching prospect. Because of what we know on Urias, I can grade his ceiling pretty close to his floor, and that sets him apart from most every prospect on this list, and why you also find him near the top of most national lists.
Urias does receive one present 80 grade, which I’ve given to his change-up. You won’t see many professional change-ups better than Urias’, thrown with superior arm speed, fade, and command. He will use it both as a strikeout pitch and as an early count pitch when pitching backwards. He also isn’t afraid to throw multiple change-ups in one at bat, as hitters have such a hard time picking it up out of hand.
Urias’ fastball is an easy 55-grade pitch that has the most room for improvement as he ages (future 70 potential). He pitched most often at 92-95 mph in starts, sitting more frequently at 92 mph early, building velocity up through the middle innings. He command his fastball well and throws it to all quadrants. The pitch has some sink to it, but he’s shown some evidence that he’s learning to manipulate the pitch and it would not surprise me if he eventually started to cut the pitch in the majors.
Urias has solid average breaking balls with his curve and his slider, both flashing plus. The curveball is used most frequently and he can fall in love with the pitch. The break can get slurvy or pop out of hand on occasion, but he has excellent command of both offerings.
One 80-grade pitch with one improving-to-plus pitch does not make an elite starting pitcher. The combination of age, aptitude, and athleticism carries his prospect grade over the top. Urias is a fantastic athlete with complete control of his delivery. He’s a rhythm pitcher with a rock and fire delivery three quarters arm slot that stays consistent from pitch to pitch. Urias did speed up his mechanics on occasion when he ran into trouble with base runners, but overall displayed the composure to pull himself together and his ability to self-diagnose flaws mid inning just isn’t seen in other pitchers. His delivery is so smooth and controlled that he might benefit from mixing up his tempo on hitters to catch them off guard.
Obviously, Urias’ age is a major point in his favor, as he won’t turn twenty before opening day. Here is where I find my first major hang-up with Urias: I often struggle with the idea that Urias’ polish might just make him a close-to-finished product much earlier in the development process, and thusly, isn’t likely to see a significant gain simply from maturing. One reason I consider this is that Urias isn’t projectable physically, as his smaller frame is largely already filled out. The other is that the gains generally made with maturity are skills that Urias already has, namely feel for pitching and plus command.
The flip side of this coin is the empirical evidence suggesting that players Urias’ age stand to make significant gains over the next four years, barring injury. It’s not a one-size-fits-all projection, but it would be foolish for me to argue against such precedence. If I was to wager on the gains made, beyond stamina, I would go back to the fastball. Urias will flash a 97-mph fastball on occasion, and any physical maturity could lead to him reaching the higher ranges of his velocity more often.
Hedging these two lines of thinking, I see Urias’ best case ceiling is that of an elite number two starter (assuming that only 10-15 pitchers in a given year can be considered "number ones.") Before he can reach his ceiling, Urias needs to prove he can hold up across a full season, starting with 140-150 innings target in 2016.
The Dodgers might have to get creative to work Urias into their Major League plans this year, as I don’t think pitching as a starter late into the big league season is conducive to his long term health. The Dodgers have plenty of depth to keep Urias down in Oklahoma City for the entirety of the 2016 season, but if he does come up, don’t be surprised if it’s only in a bullpen role to wet his feet for 2017. Even then, we are probably two years away from realistically expecting Urias to handle a 180+ inning major league workload.