Last season the Los Angeles Dodgers were so besieged by injuries they used 15 different starting pitchers, second most in baseball. Only the rebuilding Atlanta Braves (16) used more. No other postseason club used more than a dozen starters in 2016.
One of those 15 Dodgers starters was young southpaw Julio Urias, who made his major-league debut at age 19 and managed a 3.39 ERA (115 ERA+) in 77 innings. That works out to 1.0 WAR. The last teenage pitcher to reach 1.0 WAR was Felix Hernandez in 2005 (2.8 WAR). Before that it was Dwight Gooden in 1984 (5.5 WAR).
Urias threw a career-high 127 2/3 innings in 2016, including the minors, majors and postseason. His previous career high was 87 2/3 innings in 2014. Needless to say, the Dodgers can't pencil Urias in for 180-plus innings in 2017. That would be dangerous.
Here's how they might limit his workload:
One of the options under consideration to limit Julio Urias' innings is to have him begin the season at extended Spring, Roberts said.— Ken Gurnick (@kengurnick) January 25, 2017
Extended spring training is exactly what it sounds like. When spring training ends, the big-leaguers head north and most minor-leaguers are assigned to minor-league affiliates. Those minor-leaguers who aren't ready for full-season ball go to extended spring training and continue doing spring training things.
Rather than start the season with Urias in the rotation, the Dodgers would send him to extended spring training, where he could continue to work out and throw in a low-pressure environment. Then, when they're ready to turn him loose, the Dodgers would recall Urias to the big leagues. (Extended spring training ends in June, though he could come up at any time.)
We've seen teams jump through all sorts of hoops to limit the innings of their young pitchers in recent years. No one will forget the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012. We've also seen pitchers skip starts and move to the bullpen, and in some cases teams have thrown caution to the wind and let their young pitchers pitch.
Sending Urias to extended spring training would allow the Dodgers to take it easy on him early in the season so that down the stretch, when the games become more intense and meaningful, he'll be at full strength. They won't have to worry about shutting him down in September in order to keep him healthy long-term.
It's a great idea, and the Dodgers ostensibly have the pitching depth to make it happen. Even after trading top pitching prospect Jose De Leon earlier this week, Los Angeles is still 10 deep with big-league-caliber starting pitchers. Here's the depth chart:
- Clayton Kershaw
- Rich Hill
- Kenta Maeda
- Scott Kazmir
- Julio Urias
- Brandon McCarthy
- Hyun-Jin Ryu
- Alex Wood
- Ross Stripling
- Brock Stewart
No team gets through the season using only five starters these days -- heck, using only six starters seems like a miracle -- so the Dodgers are going to need all of 10 of those guys in 2016, especially since a few come with health questions (Hill and Ryu, most notably). There's no such thing as too much pitching depth.
Sending Urias to extended spring training for a few weeks early in the season is a creative way to limit his innings, and if the Dodgers are healthy early in the season, they'll be in position to send him to the minors without much of a drop-off in quality in the rotation. That said, the best laid pitching plans often go awry, so the club might have to call an audible at some point.