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What can we expect from Julio Urías with no restrictions?

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2020 projections for the Dodgers starter

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers-Workouts Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

With Julio Urías there has always been a war between present and future, showing uncommon poise during his baseball infancy but also restrained by the limits that accompanied his promise. Now, after a healthy offseason, the governor has been lifted and expectations are high.

His spot in the Dodgers’ rotation secure, Urías has been working all spring as a starter, only this time with no eventual trip to the bullpen looming.

“If this season they give me the opportunity to really go out there and just pitch,” Urías told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com earlier this spring, “I feel like this year is the year I can really take off. I feel it’s a really important year for my career.”

Urías projections for 2020

Projection ERA BB/K per 9 IP
Projection ERA BB/K per 9 IP
Marcell 3.58 3.21/9.49
ZiPS 3.92 3.47/10.20
Steamer 3.96 3.68/9.65
Source: FanGraphs & Baseball-Reference

Letting Urías pitch without restriction has been a point of contention throughout his career, but that comes with his unusual talent. He was an excellent professional pitcher at age 16, and his time in the minors saw him carve up batters who were, on average, between 6-8 years older than him. Workload has always been a concern with Urías, with the team not wanting to strain his still growing body.

He debuted in the majors at age 19, and saw his innings capped. The term kid gloves can be derisive, but in Urías’ case they were apt since he was literally a kid. Despite the coddling, Urías still got hurt, because that’s what pitchers do. Shoulder surgery cost him a year and a half. Urías was healthy in 2019, but given the Dodgers’ rotation depth he was mostly relegated to relief. Another year with his innings limited.

While it might seem frustrating that Urías has never been truly uninhibited as a pitcher, it’s important to recognize what he has done on the mound rather than his time off it. In 184 major league innings, Urías has a 3.18 ERA (129 ERA+), a 3.40 FIP, and more strikeouts than innings pitched. Last year he was at 2.49 (167 ERA+) and a 26% strikeout rate. Not bad for someone who just completed his age-22 season.

Orel Hershiser didn’t debut in the majors until after his 24th birthday. Chan Ho Park pitched all of eight major league innings before his age-23 season.

Because Urías has been around for so long, it’s easy to forget how much room for growth still exists. He’s simultaneously the eighth-longest tenured Dodger and fifth-youngest on the 40-man roster.

Yes, Urías’ innings have been limited, so there is a reasonable cap to just how much he might pitch in 2020, after throwing 81⅔ innings last year between the majors and minors. But if we look at one of his current rotation mates, we might have an idea of what could be in store for Urías if everything breaks right.

A tale of two pitchers

Age Urias Buehler Comments
Age Urias Buehler Comments
16 54⅓ unk. Great Lakes for Urías
17 87⅔ 66 Rancho for Urías; high school for Buehler
18 80⅓ 63 AA/AAA for Urías; Vanderbilt for Buehler
19 122 102⅓ MLB/AAA for Urías; Vanderbult for Buehler
20 54⅔ 88⅓ MLB/AAA for Urías; Vanderbult for Buehler
21 15⅔ 5 surgery recovery for both
22 81⅔ 98 MLB/minors for Buehler
23 tbd 153⅓
24 tbd 182⅓
Innings totals for each pitcher, including major league, minor league, college, and high school Unsure of Buehler’s IP total as a junior in high school

Walker Buehler is more similar to Urías than you might think. Both had injuries that basically wiped out their age-21 season, with Tommy John surgery the culprit in Buehler’s case. Both rebounded with strong age-22 seasons while limited, and what we’ve seen the last two seasons from Buehler — 2.98 ERA (135 ERA+), 3.02 FIP, 319⅔ innings, 366 strikeouts — shows a promise fulfilled at ages 23-24.

More importantly, Buehler made 53 starts in the last two seasons, 23 in 2018 followed by 30 last year. If you want a reasonable approximation of what’s in store for Urías’ workload in 2020-21, Buehler just might be it. If he can match the performance, too, the Dodgers would be ecstatic.