Dodgers' top pitching prospects show the future is bright

The Dodgers' top pitching prospect Julio Urias threw six hitless innings against New Orleans on Wednesday. Morry Gash/AP Photo

If there is a consistent bright spot for the Los Angeles Dodgers this season, it has been with starting pitching, led by the irreplaceable Clayton Kershaw, who has been brilliant outside of one rocky inning so far.

And that huge contribution to the team has come with two rookies in the five-man starting staff, albeit one that is a 28-year-old in Kenta Maeda, who has eight years of experience in Japan’s highest league. Despite a number of injuries already this season, and the loss of Zack Greinke in the offseason, Dodgers starters continue to perform.

It speaks to pitching depth in the organization that the starters had a 3.44 combined ERA entering play Wednesday, fourth best in the National League and only trailing starting-pitching stalwarts like the New York Mets (2.87), Chicago Cubs (2.21) and Washington Nationals (2.16).

And in a sign that bodes well for the future, the team’s pitching depth goes far deeper that what is visible at the major-league level. The two top pitching prospects in the organization just blew away their opponents on back-to-back days this week.

On Tuesday, right-hander Jose De Leon made his 2016 debut and dominated for Triple-A Oklahoma City. De Leon gave up just two hits over five scoreless innings, in his first-ever appearance at Triple-A after reaching Double-A last season. De Leon had been at extended spring training before making his season debut.

On Wednesday, the Dodgers saw an even better performance for Oklahoma City, as top pitching prospect Julio Urias made it look easy with six hitless innings against New Orleans. Urias was held to 77 pitches as three Dodgers pitchers combined on a one-hitter in a 5-0 victory.

"Tremendously encouraging outings for De Leon and Urias," Dodgers director of player development Gabe Kapler said. "De Leon's deception was on full display, as was his ability to sell his changeup. Urias demonstrated conviction and a crisp pace. His confidence was on full display, as it is perpetually. Loved his breaking-ball command and its late, sharp break in this start."

The 19-year-old Urias was coming off a scheduled relief appearance as the Dodgers look to control his innings. After five appearances (four starts), the left-hander is 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 24 innings. He has 29 strikeouts and just three walks, after he fanned six Wednesday without a free pass.

In three previous seasons in the Dodgers’ organization, Urias has not pitched more than 87 2/3 innings in any one year. That number likely would stay closer to 100 innings than 200 this season.

That doesn’t mean a call-up to the major leagues is out of the question for this season. The Dodgers could be inclined to bring up Urias in a relief role this year, with the intention of turning him back into a starter for next season.

"Anything is possible," Kapler said. "There are so many variables and therefore, roles are difficult to predict. Julio's job is to be flexible and athletic so that he's ready for any opportunity that presents itself."