More than a year after his Major League debut, Toronto baseball fans are still waiting to see the promise fulfilled. But Blue Jays fans should turn their eyes to the bullpen if they want to witness the best of what Nate Pearson has to offer.
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We should have seen this coming Blue Jays fans….
Nate Pearson has long been ballyhooed as ‘The Next Big Thing” in regards to Toronto pitching prospects. We’re not talking Dustin McGowan, Kyle Drabek and Aaron Sanchez top prospects. We have been envisioning Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key and Roy Halladay staff ace status. Drafted 28th overall in 2017, Pearson dominated at each minor league level and was named by Baseball America as the organization’s #1 prospect in 2020 & 2021. In many ways, Pearson seemed pre-destined to be a Blue Jay, growing up and playing high school baseball just 7 miles due east of the team’s Dunedin Spring Training complex. A pandemic delayed his scheduled debut in 2020, but on July 29th Big Nate made his Major League debut in the Toronto “Home opener”.
A home opener versus Max Scherzer, in Nationals Park, in D.C.. He went five innings, giving up two hits and two walks with five strikeouts, and surrendered no runs. With Charlie Montoyo‘s formulaic lifting of the hard throwing right hander, Blue Jays fans started a fan dance with the future. Hungrily waiting for the next start and frustrated when “The Next Big Thing’ delivered decreasing returns. For the 2020 Blue Jays, Pearson appeared in 5 games, compiling a 1–0 record with 6.00 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 18.0 innings pitched.
“He didn’t have a real Spring Training to prepare for the season.” Why didn’t Montoyo and Atkins give Nate more opportunities? Jays fans had an answer to any questions that Pearson’s performance and injuries might have posed. Yours truly wrote a glowing article in advance of his first start, comparing his skills and future path to stardom to that of Roger Clemons and Dwight Gooden. We didn’t want to believe our Next Big Thing made not yet have grown into our giant expectations.
Fast forward to the 2021 season. Inserted into the rotation and the race for AL Rookie of the Year. Jays fans seemed perplexed and felt cheated when recurring groin injuries kept Pearson down earlier this season. During his lone appearance in 2021, Pearson lasted just 2 1/3 innings and walked five with zero strikeouts. He subsequently had been diagnosed with a sports hernia and during his rehabilitation stint with AAA Buffalo, Pearson has transitioned into a relief role after 6 rather lackluster starts. Overall, he has logged 26.2 innings, allowed 13 runs while striking out 36 hitters and limiting walks to just 11. In his August 19th Minor League Recap, JFtC Co-Editor Ryan Mueller noted Pearson closed out the first game of a Bison doubleheader whiffing one and surrendering just 1 hit.
The idea of Nate Pearson as a late-inning, leverage reliever should start Blue Jays fans salivating all over again. In his 8 AAA appearances, Pearson has produced a 1.088 WHIP while flashing command of his 100+ mile per hour fastball and hard, biting slider. Given the 1.777 WHIP in 2020 and horrific 3.877 WHIP from his lone 2021 appearance, the progress he has made during those 8 outings for Buffalo is more in line with the dazzling sub 1.00 WHIP totals of his three-level rise through the system in 2019. Leverage relievers must not only limit inherited runners to score, they must make quick work of opposing lineups when they start an inning. For any Blue Jays fan who breaks into cold sweats when replaying the performances of late inning relievers this season, transferring the hopes we placed in Pearson as a future staff ace into a slam the door relief role should bring relief to any fan.
Truth be told, the fastball/slider combo works better in a relief role over a limited number of pitches. In his only appearance during the 2020 Wild Card Series against Tampa Bay, Pearson blanked the Rays over 2 innings, striking out 5 of the 6 batters he faced. In combination with his 2 solid relief appearance during his AAA rehab, it is not a stretch to daydream about dominant appearances out of the bullpen down the stretch. It is not unprecedented for talented, but inconsistent starting pitchers to morph into All-Star uber-closers.
Remember Rich Gossage and Dennis Eckersley? What about John Smoltz returning from serious arm injury to fill a desperate need in the bullpen for Atlanta? For Nate Pearson and the Blue Jays, an opportunity to unleash his electric fastball and slider for concentrated innings may just be the difference for a team still alive for a Wild Card berth despite bullpen failures. Most enticing of all, a permanent transition to a leverage relief role can not only keep Pearson healthy but also secure multiple playoff wins over the next 5 plus years.
In my July 2020 feature on Pearson, I opined “Nate Pearson just might win multiple Cy Young Awards for his heroics from a pitching mound-and maybe even hoist a Commissioner’s Trophy or two before he retires as a national hero.” Injuries and hiccups have dampened my beliefs in multiple Cy Young Awards for the talented righthander. But several Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Awards to go along with World Championship or two will help me forget what we Blue Jays fans should have realized in 2020. Nate Pearson will bring those pennants to the Rogers Centre coming out of the bullpen to put out fires-not start them.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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