The hopes of Nate Pearson becoming an impact starting pitcher for the Blue Jays’ current post-season run have long since vanished, but it’s not too late for Toronto’s top prospect to provide some value out of the bullpen.
Pearson was activated from the injured list Thursday afternoon following an absence of almost five weeks with a sore right elbow. Toronto anticipates using Pearson in relief a couple times before the regular season concludes Sunday afternoon as a final test before the post-season roster is revealed early next week.
Toronto has yet to determine how Pearson will be used in the playoffs because that will depend on how he responds over the next couple days. Pearson likely will become a high-leverage reliever late in games, but it’s also possible the native of Florida will be used as an opener if he doesn’t look comfortable in his new role.
“He’s never done it before, so we’ll see how he does,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo prior to Thursday’s series finale against the New York Yankees. “But the other guys who made the move this year, (Thomas) Hatch, (Ryan) Borucki, (Anthony) Kay, and all those guys have done a great job. I see Pearson doing the same thing, but let’s see how he does and how long it takes to get warmed up and stuff because he has never done it before.”
Pearson has the tools required to be an impact reliever. His upper 90s velocity and wipeout slider are perfectly suited to overpowering hitters late in games. Considering Pearson maintains upper-90s velocity with relative ease deep into starts, it’s scary to think what he could do at max effort in short stints.
But it won’t be an easy transition, even if the talent suggests it should be. Pearson has been open in the past about how it takes him an inning or two to get loose and feel comfortable on the mound. The former first-round pick typically starts games throwing in the lower- to mid-90s and gradually gains velocity as his outings progress. That’s a luxury he won’t have as a reliever.
In the minor leagues, Pearson had an approach similar to Houston Astros star right-hander Justin Verlander. If teams didn’t get to Pearson in the first inning or two, they were unlikely to do much of anything before he walked off the mound for the final time. That strategy isn’t a problem when Pearson is throwing 100-plus pitches a night, but it presents issues for his new job.
That’s why the Jays intend to take a cautious approach with Pearson over the next few days as they evaluable how much he will be able to contribute and when. Toronto intends to only bring him into a game at the start of an inning and they will give him at least one full frame to get warmed up before coming in.
Pearson is not going to be the guy who enters with the bases loaded and the Jays in desperate need of a strikeout. Instead he’ll likely be the guy eating up a clean inning or two late in games before handing things over to a more experienced reliever like Anthony Bass or Rafael Dolis.
It’s not the same impact Pearson would have made as a No. 2 starter behind Hyun-Jin Ryu but, with not enough time to get stretched out, this is the best the Blue Jays can hope for. The test begins this week and, if Pearson fares poorly, Toronto may be forced to put him into a more familiar territory by using him as an opener. As of right now, that appears to be Plan B.
“He could do both,” Montoyo said. “If he comes out, looking good out of the ’pen throwing 97-98 m.p.h., I wouldn’t mind using him in high-leverage (situations). But he also could open for us, if we need him.”
Pearson was the first big piece the Jays got back for their bullpen, but they hope he won’t be the last. Arguably even more important than Pearson’s return is the status of top setup man Jordan Romano, who has been out since Aug. 28 with a finger injury on his right hand.
Romano threw a bullpen session earlier this week and he is scheduled to throw another one Friday. There’s an outside chance Romano could be activated by Sunday’s season finale against the Baltimore Orioles, but it’s just as likely he won’t pitch in an official game before the playoffs.
There will be obvious concerns about rust after such a long layoff, but at least the club won’t have to worry about Romano transitioning from starter to reliever at the same time. The Markham, Ont., native did that a year ago, and with 15 appearances under his belt this season, the Jays are optimistic he will be able to hit the ground running if he becomes available on short notice.
“Jordan has done that before,” Montoyo said. “We’ll see what he looks like, but it’s nothing new for Jordan to come back and pitch out of the bullpen. It’s something new for Nate to come out of the bullpen, who has never done it before. They are different cases. But we’ll see how Jordan looks. Hopefully he keeps improving the way he is right now.”
Activating guys right before the playoffs without the luxury of regular-season reps might seem a bit unusual, but nothing about 2020 has been normal for the Blue Jays or anyone else. Toronto will take all the help it can get, no matter the timing. If that means throwing guys into the fire without much of a warm-up, so be it.