GLENDALE, Ariz. – Soon, Julio Urias will be left behind.
When the Dodgers break camp next weekend, the 21-year-old left-hander will remain in Arizona – his home for most of the past 10 months — and continue to rehabilitate his surgically-repaired shoulder. Months of rehab are behind him. Months more stretch out in front of him before Urias can return to a major-league mound.
For players on extended recovery plans, that is often the lowest point – when all of your peers go off to start their seasons, leaving you to face the monotony of rehab alone.
“Yeah, it’s not easy,” Urias said through an interpreter. “But my career hasn’t been easy either. It’s one that has required a lot of patience and I’m going to have to continue to rely on that patience to keep going.”
Indeed, Urias has been left behind before. A year ago, he spent time in extended spring training after the Dodgers left Arizona. It was part of the team’s attempt to ease him into the season and slowly increase his innings from one season to the next.
That cautionary approach didn’t prevent Urias from tearing the anterior capsule in his pitching shoulder. He had reconstructive surgery on June 27 and only began a throwing program in November. Urias says he has not had a single twinge of pain during that program which has progressed to long-tossing from 120 feet this week.
Other markers are off in the distance. Urias says he does not know when he will throw off a mound again or face hitters. He says he is just trying to stay pain-free and get comfortable throwing again.
“Making sure you’re pain free day-to-day — that’s the most important part,” he said. “When you go eight months without doing anything then you start throwing, you immediately start feeling like there are other things coming, other stages of the rehab coming along.”
There are only hazy projections for when Urias might be able to return to action. The original prognosis was a 12- to 14-month recovery and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sticks to the company line when he says, “We’re expecting to get Julio back at some point this summer.”
“His head – he’s in a great place,” Roberts said.
Soon, Urias will be in that place alone again.
“You wish them the best of luck,” Urias said of watching the Dodgers pack up next week. “You know everybody is going to go out there and try to go as far as possible and give their grain of salt to reach their goals. But you have to put that aside. I’m off to the side right now and they’re healthy. So they’ll keep going and I’ll keep working on what I have to do.”
Right-hander Tom Koehler (shoulder strain) has his arm out of a restrictive sling but still has not been cleared to resume baseball activities. His injury opened a spot in the Dodgers’ bullpen – that might go to a position player.
Early in camp, Roberts said an eight-man bullpen was the most likely way the team will open the season. In Koehler’s absence, however, no reliever has clearly stepped up to claim that last spot.
“I think losing Tommy Koehler opened things up and it created some opportunities,” Roberts said. “And, to be quite honest, it’s a little more fuzzy. That’s a good thing as far as opportunities. We’ve got time to continue to evaluate, whether we carry seven or eight.”
A seven-man bullpen would allow the Dodgers to carry another player on their bench. Kyle Farmer (11 for 24 this spring) has done the most to put himself in that position. The Dodgers could also use it to carry an extra outfielder (perhaps Joc Pederson or Trayce Thompson who is out of options) or an extra infielder to guard against Corey Seager’s elbow and back issues.
Former Dodger Steve Garvey spoke to the team in the morning meeting Saturday. “He really captured the room,” Roberts said. “He really nailed it. … It was really cool.”
Koehler (shoulder) is pain-free for nearly all daily activities, but it’s unclear when he will be able to begin throwing, Ken Gurnick of MLB.com reports.
He is going to open the season on the disabled list while he recovers from a sprained shoulder capsule. Koehler has been freed from the restraint device that kept his right arm at his side, and the next progression will likely be some sort of soft-toss program. While Koehler will be an option as a spot starter, he is more likely to spend the bulk of the season serving as a long reliever.
The Los Angeles Dodgers should have taken care of this over the winter, but didn’t. They should resolve this before opening day, but haven’t offered any indication they will.
So it’s entirely possible Dave Roberts will start his third season as a lame-duck manager.
That’s right. Dave Roberts, the National League manager of the year in 2016, is in the final guaranteed year of his contract.
Dave Roberts, who managed the Dodgers to their first World Series appearance in nearly three decades, has less job security than Andy Green of the San Diego Padres, who last year received a contract extension through the 2021 season.
This isn’t complicated. Extending Roberts should be as easy a call as designating Clayton Kershaw the opening day starter or renewing Corey Seager’s contract.
The Dodgers control Roberts’ employment beyond this season; his contract includes a fourth-year team option. But that’s not the point.
By not extending Roberts’ contract, Andrew Friedman’s front office is essentially reserving the right to make him the fall guy if something goes wrong this season. It’s not a good look. As it was, Roberts had to fight the perception he was management’s puppet when he was first hired.
Over the last couple of years, instead of simply following orders, Roberts has gained a measure of credibility in the clubhouse by incorporating the sabermetically inclined front office’s ideas into his own proactive approach to managing. Creating an imbalance of power could threaten that hard-earned trust, as players might wonder whether his decisions are based on sincere beliefs or self-preservation.
If the Dodgers happen to have a slow start to the season, they will find themselves with a completely avoidable controversy.
One short-term solution would be to immediately exercise the fourth-year option on Roberts’ contract. The team’s reluctance to do so might actually be that it wouldn’t be fair to Roberts. The terms of the option year were agreed upon when Roberts had no experience as a manager.
Whatever the terms of his contract, Roberts has certainly outperformed them. In his two seasons as manager, he has a record of 195-129. He reached the National League Championship Series in his first season and the World Series in his second.
Roberts was provided with championship-caliber rosters, but that doesn’t mean just anyone could do what he has done.
As important as the results is the culture he has helped create. He has convinced players to place the team’s interests ahead of their own, persuading former everyday players to buy into platoon roles, relievers to be more flexible and starting pitchers to accept making shorter appearances. His charisma and intelligence have made him an ideal spokesman for a team in a major media market.
Outfielder Matt Kemp, who returned to the Dodgers this spring, said he was struck by how much his teammates’ mindsets had changed over the three seasons he spent in San Diego and Atlanta.
“They have something special here, man,” Kemp said. “That’s not something I’m saying just to say it. I really feel it, from the coaches to the trainers. Everybody works together for one common goal and that’s to get back to World Series and win that last game of the season.”
General manager Farhan Zaidi intimated that the front office was open to rewarding Roberts with a multiple-year extension.
“We’re not going to talk about every nook and cranny of our internal discussions on that issue publicly,” Zaidi said. “But needless to say, Doc’s done a great job. We have a great working relationship with him and we’re hoping to be together for a long time.
“He’s technically under contract for this season, with an option for the next, but we’re certainly hoping things extend beyond that.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t guarantee Roberts anything. Until a new deal is signed, the words are only words.
Asked Thursday about his situation, Roberts was as calm as he is in the late innings of a close game.
“We’re focused on winning,” he said. “We’re focused on the ballclub this year, so my contract is something that I’m not really putting much thought into. I know that myself, the organization, we’re synced up and know that we will discuss it at the proper time.”
Roberts won’t say it, so someone else should say it for him: The proper time is now.
Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp connects for a home run during a baseball spring exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp is all smiles during workouts at the Camelback Ranch Complex in Glendale on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)
Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp is met at home plate after his three-run home run during a baseball spring exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp takes grounders at third during workouts at the Camelback Ranch Complex in Glendale on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)
Left fielder Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team holds a bat as he poses for a photograph on MLB photo day, on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Matt Kemp leads off first during a drill at the team’s spring training baseball facility Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Matt Kemp catches a fly ball during a baseball spring exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp hits during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp during workouts at the Camelback Ranch Complex in Glendale on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)
Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp rounds the bases after a home run during a baseball spring exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Yep, he’s still here.
Three months after he was acquired in a trade that was more accounting trick than baseball move, over one month after he reported to spring training with an uncertain future, Matt Kemp is still back in blue – and looking more and more like a part of the Dodgers’ Opening Day lineup and their primary left fielder.
“To his credit, he’s showing what’s made him a very good player for a long time,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Kemp, who is batting .333 (12 for 36) with four home runs this spring. “When you make the trade and you look at the seasons guys had last year who we have coming back, we were already a very good team without Matt. But to have a former All-Star in as good a shape as he’s been in years and add him to the mix, it only increases the level of competition to play for everyone around him. That’s a good thing. That’s a good thing for all of us.”
With almost two weeks left before the start of the regular season, Roberts emphasized that the Dodgers’ left-field plans are hardly set in stone. There is ongoing “conversation and debate,” he said.
There has been much to talk about. Six players have had a chance to make their case for a part in the Dodgers’ left-field plans. Alex Verdugo has hit well but another year of Triple-A seasoning seems to be in his future. Joc Pederson has failed to build on his excellent World Series performance. Trayce Thompson could find himself on the waiver wire before Opening Day. Kike’ Hernandez has shown himself to be deserving of regular playing time – but that will likely come in his “super-utility” role again.
That leaves Kemp and Andrew Toles, who has proven to be healthy after surgery for a torn ACL in his right knee last May. In the right-handed veteran and the left-handed Toles (12 for 36 this spring), the Dodgers would seem to have the makings of a platoon.
“He’s definitely not nor has he ever been a platoon guy,” Roberts said of Kemp. “It’s more of the right situation and using him and the other guys on our club the right way. You look at that position, call it 650 plate appearances. Now it’s our job to kind of figure out how we divvy those up. With Matt, certainly platoon doesn’t even come into play.”
Kemp has hit left-handers better than right-handers throughout his career – a .319 batting average, .921 OPS and one home run every 22.4 plate appearances against lefties, .274 and .794 with one home run every 25 plate appearances against righties. But he reversed that last year, hitting righties (.808 OPS, 16 home runs) much better than lefties (.684 and three home runs).
Roberts calls Toles “a plus-defender” in left field with the ability to play the other two outfield spots also. Kemp’s defense has been adequate this spring but it still calls out for a time-share arrangement if not a full-on platoon partner.
“To be quite honest, he surprised me with the way he came in shape,” Roberts said of Kemp, who says he has shed 40 pounds since last season. “I had him in San Diego (in 2015). I saw him last year. And to see the complete contrast in body composition? I’m surprised, yeah. Pleasantly surprised and excited for him.
“When we acquired him we didn’t know what kind of shape he was in. We went on what he looked like last year and coming off an injury. The way he came in initially made a statement in itself. So we’re not going to make any decisions right now. We still have time for that. Obviously, he’s getting a good look and he and some other guys are playing really well.”
The Dodgers have made it clear they are “slow-playing” top prospect Walker Buehler this spring with an eye toward conserving his innings – a natural resource to be tapped into deeper in the season. His fastball hasn’t gotten the memo. He regularly hit 97-98 mph and touched 99 twice during his two innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday.
Buehler retired six of the seven batters he faced, struck out two, walked one and threw a wild pitch in his first Cactus League appearance this spring. What’s next, when or where his season will start, Buehler says he doesn’t know. The Dodgers are handling everything with him on a need-to-know basis and apparently Buehler doesn’t need to know much.
“I’ve told everybody that’s above my pay grade,” he said Friday. “I’m not too worried about it. I’m 23 years old and I feel good with where I’m at and what I’m trying to accomplish. Hopefully it all works out.
“The biggest thing is this team winning. If I’m part of that, great. If not then we’ve got some good guys out there.”
“When you make the trade, and you look at the season that guys had last year, and who we had coming back, we were already a very good team without Matt,” Roberts said. “But to have a former All-Star in as good a shape as he has been in in years, and to add him to the mix, it only increases the level of competition and play for everyone around him. That’s good for all of us.”