I often think back to Nate Pearson’s debut with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The big right-hander took the hill in late July 2020 and diced the Washington Nationals on the road for five shutout innings with five strikeouts. During a screwy COVID-shortened season that ended with the Blue Jays making the playoffs, Pearson’s debut offered a glimmer of hope for the future. The stuff was there.
When the Jays faced the Tampa Bay Rays in a lopsided September postseason series, the rookie looked even better than he did in his debut. He tossed two innings of relief, hit triple digits with the heater, and punched out five of six hitters. Good gracious.
After his inaugural season, the Blue Jays’ top prospect looked destined for a starting role. Not so fast. Pearson began the 2021 season on the injured list with a groin strain, which eventually ended up being a sports hernia that required surgery. He returned out of the bullpen in late 2021 but caught the injury bug again in 2022 (first mononucleosis, and then a lat injury). All told, Pearson didn’t pitch a single inning with the Jays last season and has thrown just 33 career MLB innings.
So, with spring training several weeks away, how should the Blue Jays use Pearson in 2023? What should the expectations be?
Another chance at starting?
Spring training is more important for starting pitchers than any other position in baseball. Rotation guys need to loosen their arms, rack up a few bullpens, then build up their pitch counts a few increments at a time. A year ago, Pearson got sick in late March, sat out for weeks to recover, and never really had a shot at building the necessary reps to become a starter.
In 2023, it’s even less likely (let’s go ahead and call it impossible) that Pearson cracks the starting rotation. The addition of Chris Bassitt only deepens Toronto’s starting five, and between Yusei Kikuchi and Mitch White, the Jays have multiple back-end options. It sucks to snuff his torch so early, but the 26-year-old won’t be a starting pitcher anytime soon, not until he at least gets some serious major-league innings under his belt.
A multi-inning guy?
If you rule out Pearson’s chances as a conventional starter, he becomes an intriguing weapon. Whether he starts the 2023 season with Toronto or in Triple-A Buffalo, the likeliest scenario sees Pearson in a multi-inning bullpen role. This way, he can get close to the innings of a starter, which he deserves, while also limiting the injury risk from an extensive spring training buildup.
The Blue Jays’ top priority is to get Pearson innings. Whether he excels or gets cranked from foul pole to foul pole, the man just needs to pitch. As a pitcher, you earn intangible experience anytime you step on the mound. You need to iron out those skills while riding the adrenaline spikes of a fast-moving major-league ballgame.
In a limited sample size as a reliever, Pearson’s been quite good (2.51 ERA, 22 Ks in 14.1 innings). He made 11 relief appearances in 2021, throwing 20 pitches or more in six of those games. That’s probably the output we’ll see from Pearson in 2023 – a sixth-inning guy who can roll into the seventh for an out or two before his pitch count gets too high.
Of course, there’s always the chance he starts really hot out of the bullpen. In that instance, some very exciting possibilities await.
A max-it-out, high-leverage reliever?
Since Pearson’s health began to sputter in 2021, there’s been a dark, mystical beckoning (stoked largely by Blue Jays fans) that suggests his talents would be best used as a late-inning reliever or closer. While I’m not yet ready to condemn Pearson to a career of one-inning appearances, I can’t deny the allure.
At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Pearson is physically a good fit for a flamethrowing relief role. His arsenal plays, too, especially since he found most of his success in late 2021 with a simple four-seam and slider combo. The upside is very, very tempting.
At the same time, you don’t want to bottle Pearson up so soon. Toronto will likely keep him decently stretched out this spring and play it by ear as the season goes along. Regardless of his role, Pearson will be one of several young Blue Jays players to keep an eye on in early 2023.
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