GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The back of the No. 7 jersey says “Urías,” but “Make or Break” would be just as accurate this spring for left-hander Julio Urías. Once one of the top pitching prospects in the game, the 23-year-old is at a crossroads as a Dodger. The wraps are off, as management has shelved the kid-glove treatment and made him the fourth starter.
But that is more a challenge to Urías than a reward, the latest chapter of a story often delayed by injury as well as blemished by last year’s suspension for domestic violence.
“It’s Julio’s time to make that jump and be a starter,” manager Dave Roberts said. “The challenge for Julio is to sustain it all year long. I think that that's where the maturity has to come into place and, you know, the weight room and obviously stuff on the field matters, so it’s the consistency that we're looking for from him.”
The Dodgers went from having high expectations for Urías to not knowing what to expect. Here’s what he expects from himself.
“If this season they give me the opportunity to really go out there and just pitch,” said Urías, “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 has not had the luxury of flying under the radar. “Expectations” could be on the back of his jersey as well. He was signed by Mike Brito on his 16th birthday while the Dodgers were pursuing Yasiel Puig, debuted at 19, underwent surgery on his shoulder capsule at 21 and throughout has had his innings limited -- first because of his youth, then because of the injury.
A left-handed native of Mexico with poise and advanced off-speed pitches, Urías was compared with Fernando Valenzuela. Left-handed and hard-throwing with a repeatable delivery, he was compared with Clayton Kershaw. In 2016, MLB Pipeline ranked him the top left-handed pitching prospect in the game.
Then came the speed bumps, including Minor League demotions that he now concedes crept into his head and left him wondering if each Major League appearance could be his last.
“Sometimes you carry that into the game with that thought in your head that you’ll be gone after that game,” he said. “Last year I started focusing on controlling what I can control and being locked in and [showing] that confidence on the mound, as well.”
Last year, following his 20-game suspension, Urías wasn’t fit enough to handle a starter’s role down the stretch. Ultimately, that left the Dodgers to start Game 4 of the National League Division Series with Rich Hill, who was pitching with a torn elbow and lasted only 2 2/3 innings.
Fast forward, and Urías is being slotted into the fourth spot of the rotation, behind Kershaw, Walker Buehler and David Price, and ahead of the cattle-call competition for the fifth job -- even though he’s averaged only 44 2/3 innings over his seven professional seasons, including 81 2/3 last year.
He understands he’s in this position in part because of his talent, and in part because so many expected so much.
“I’m proud that they compared me to those players,” he said. “You look at someone like Kershaw, one of the best pitchers of his generation. It’s something that makes me proud to have that expectation. There’s a reason they have me here, and I’m going to try to make my own career.”