Julio Urias is a teenager from Culiacán, Mexico, who hasn’t pitched above Class A in the Dodgers farm system. Yet, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez knows his name.
“I’m going to watch him in spring training,” Hernandez, the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner, told me this week.
That’s your first clue: Urias could become one of the most compelling baseball stories of 2015.
The list of pitchers this century to start a major-league game before the age of 20 consists of one name: Hernandez, who started 12 times for the Mariners in 2005, all as a 19-year-old, with an almost unfathomable 2.67 ERA.
Urias, 18, has the talent and poise to join King Felix among the elite company of major-league teenagers. He has plenty of time to do it, too. The left-hander won’t turn 20 until Aug. 12, 2016. At the rate he’s going, it will be a surprise if he’s not in the majors by then.
In fact, there are those who believe Urias will pitch for the Dodgers this year. And if that comes to pass, Urias could be the first 18-year-old to start a big-league game since Jose Rijo in 1984, according to research through STATS LLC.
Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis described one of Urias’ recent bullpen sessions as “35 electric pitches,” all delivered with a veteran’s polish and tempo.
“I asked to see a birth certificate after he got done,” Ellis quipped. “You can’t fathom that. You can’t fathom somebody who has the ability to repeat their mechanics that way (at that age).
“When I was 18, I was trying to find out whose parents were out of town so I could hang out in their basement.”
Urias has a 2.41 ERA and 1.106 WHIP in 142 innings over the past two seasons, despite being about six years younger, on average, than the hitters he’s competing against.
So, does he think he’ll earn that historic call-up this year?
“Well, you’ve got to be ready,” Urias said Wednesday. “I don’t know if it will be this year or the next, but I hope to be ready. First, be healthy, ask God for me to be healthy and be ready for the moment when (manager Don) Mattingly decides or the managers decide to call us over.”
Urias’ physical maturation has been noticeable since throwing one inning for the Dodgers in a spring training game last March. Team president Stan Kasten observed Wednesday — as Urias challenged older teammates in clubhouse Ping-Pong matches — that he appeared 20 or 30 pounds lighter than one year ago. Urias now has the musculature of a young man, fit for a big-league uniform.
Dodgers officials are impressed … but measured in their expectations, at least for 2015.
“It’s pretty hard not to like what you see,” Mattingly said. “It’s a nice, clean delivery. The ball comes out easy. He’s still very young but seems wise beyond his years, as far as pitching. Everybody likes what we see.”
As for the big leagues this year …
“Our standard answer right now is that we won’t see him,” Mattingly continued. “He’s 18. Nobody wants to retard his development at all. He’s moving forward. He had (87 2/3) innings last year. He’ll get more this year. There’s a plan to continue to build his innings and get him ready for the big leagues.
“At this point, it’s not about him being in the big leagues. It’s about him developing.”
That all sounds very reasonable in late February. But the Dodgers being Hollywood’s team, it’s easy to envision a script in which the 18-year-old phenom arrives from Double-A to rescue the rotation.
The franchise — and its fans — have come to expect such heroics from rookie pitchers, with Clayton Kershaw only the most recent example. Moreover, Urias is poised to be the next international pitching star for an organization that claims the all-time Major League Baseball wins leaders from Mexico (Fernando Valenzuela), South Korea (Chan Ho Park) and Japan (Hideo Nomo).
Valenzuela, a fellow left-hander, represents a strong historical parallel: He was 19 years old at the time of his debut, 35 years ago. At a time when Mexican-American first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig are among the team’s most marketable players, Urias could help further strengthen the Dodgers’ ties to Latin American fans.
“No franchise in pro sports history has had as great of a social impact as the Dodgers,” Kasten said. “Jackie Robinson … Sandy Koufax, who was an icon for a generation of Eastern Europeans assimilating … Fernando … Chan Ho Park … Yasiel Puig … Hyun-Jin Ryu. It’s part of our DNA, and we’re so proud of that.
“Yes, our market is well-suited to that, but it’s just the way this franchise was even going back to Brooklyn. It’s part of what this franchise is, and means, to society at large.”
One day, Urias will carry on that legacy. And over the next month in the Cactus League, plenty of scouts, fans and reporters — not to mention a five-time All-Star pitcher from Seattle — will watch the kid from Culiacán and wonder just how soon he’ll arrive.