Is 18 too soon for Dodgers phenom Julio Urias to debut in big leagues?

·MLB columnist
Is 18 too soon for Dodgers phenom Julio Urias to debut in big leagues?

MINNEAPOLIS – He's 17 years old. That's what gets everyone. It's not Julio Urias' 97-mph fastball, which is unforgettable because he fires it left-handed. Nor is it his left eye, which droops because of childhood surgery to remove a tumor. It's the fact that he can barely drive, can't vote, is almost half a decade from a legal beer and could very well pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers next year.

"This guy's got the ability to pitch in the big leagues at 18," Logan White said Sunday morning, a few hours before Urias threw that 97-mph gas and breezed through an impressive 14-pitch inning for the World team in a 3-2 loss to the U.S. in the Futures Game that kicked off baseball's All-Star week. White is the Dodgers' scouting director, and he understands the loaded nature of his words, how the last pitcher to debut in the big leagues as an 18-year-old was Tim Conroy in 1978 – and that was little more than a publicity stunt by Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley.

For now, Urias plies his trade at Class A Rancho Cucamonga, not just holding his own against players on average six years older than him but tearing up the league much as he did last year in the full-season Midwest League. He was all of 16 then, a would-be sophomore in high school, dropping a 2.48 ERA on a league filled with kids who had played college baseball. This was not the sort of teenage life other players lived.

"I was probably egging cars and throwing water balloons at cars," Diamondbacks prospect Braden Shipley said.

"Trying to get on every girl possible," White Sox prospect Micah Johnson said.

"It's hard to explain how a kid who's 17 does everything he does," said Dodgers prospect Corey Seager, Urias' teammate each of the last two seasons. "He's unbelievably composed. His maturity is through the roof. He's just very impressive. There's nothing that frightens him. He doesn't overreact when he gets a bad call. He doesn't throw his glove. Nothing like that ever comes out of him."

For Urias, the Dodgers have perhaps the most fruitful scouting trip in modern baseball history to thank. In June 2012, White flew to Mexico with longtime scouts Mike Brito and Paul Fryer. Their first stop was to see a Cuban kid who had defected. His name was Yasiel Puig. Brito also liked a catcher named Julian Leon, who was working out in Oaxaca. Leon could play, certainly, but he was nothing compared to the 15-year-old lefty whose fastball sat in the low 90s.

Scouts there from other teams couldn't get a good read on the kid. They'd heard rumors. That he had cancer. That he needed chemotherapy. That he could die. It was all false, gossip that mushroomed like a bad game of telephone.

"Lord knows why it was like that," Urias said Sunday through an interpreter, "but God gave me the ability to play baseball."

And he could play. White wasn't a doctor and certainly wasn't going to let speculation affect what he saw. If there was a problem, the Dodgers would find it during a physical. Because no way was he letting Urias go to another team. The Dodgers offered $450,000, and he signed when he turned 16 in August.

He was a revelation almost immediately. His fastball ticked up as he grew into his 6-foot frame. His curveball was demonic. His changeup played and would improve. He threw strikes. More than that, he radiated presence off the mound, an intangible entity, yes, but one scouts value because it speaks to their ability to turn natural ability into performance.

Everyone in the league knew about the Dodgers' 16-year-old. He was mythical.

"I remember last year I faced him in Fort Wayne," said Hunter Renfroe, the Padres' first-round pick in 2013 out of Mississippi State. "I'd just gotten moved up and was hearing about this 16-year-old they had. I was like, a 16-year-old? No chance he's any good.

"I'm hitting third. And of course the first two guys who go up there, he throws three straight fastballs by them. I'm wondering what happened. They didn't even look that hard. So I get up there and watch the first pitch. That one kind of got on me a little bit. Next pitch I swung and fouled it straight back. I'm thinking, 'I'm on you now.' Next pitch is a curveball, and I walked back to the dugout."

It's the sort of inning that gives the Dodgers the feelings – and makes them pump their brakes. Even though Urias could be ready for the major leagues before his 19th birthday on Aug. 12, 2015, the Dodgers don't want to be the team that rushed their prized prospect to the big leagues for him only to flop. They've still got training wheels on Urias, keeping him to low pitch counts and lower innings totals.

"They're trying to take it slow," Urias said. "They know what they're doing. Those are the rules. I'm sticking with it."

Of course, to the idea of hitting the major leagues as an 18-year-old, Urias said: "I'm prepared."

And that's so much of what White loves. He wasn't scared as a 16-year-old in a new country. He acclimated quickly to professional baseball, sneaking in jabs at teammates in improving English, silencing the ones who blab too much with a quick drive-by quip: "Talky talky." He welcomes the comparisons to Fernando Valezuela, a Mexico-bred Dodgers wunderkind of decades past. He loved being the youngest player ever to appear in a Futures Game.

Perhaps the best part was the buzz around him. Everyone here gawked at Texas prospect Joey Gallo's batting practice and the prodigious power of Chicago Cubs prospect Kris Bryant. Urias was every bit the show stealer, too, with U.S. players thinking of him pregame.

"I'm gonna face him today," Johnson said. "It'll be just my luck."

Johnson was prescient. Indeed he did face Urias, who goaded him into a weak groundout. Washington prospect Michael Taylor said Urias was the most impressive of the four pitchers he faced, including Edwin Escobar and Enny Romero, a pair of left-handers at Triple-A.

"This is what I like," Urias said. "This is my passion. You just have to enjoy it. I know that I lost my adolescence and childhood, but it's what I enjoy."

Beats egging cars.