Blue Jays face challenges, temptations in handling of prospect Nate Pearson

Nate Pearson (Allasyn Lieneck / Dunedin Blue Jays)

TORONTO – In the lead-up to the 2019 season, the Toronto Blue Jays met with electric pitching prospect Nate Pearson and presented him with different plans to balance the year’s conflicting developmental priorities.

Coming off a campaign in which injuries limited the towering right-hander to a mere 22 innings, both club and player wanted to aggressively push his progress forward. Frankly, his abilities demanded as much. Still, simply letting his workload ride after such a truncated campaign would have been unforgivably reckless with a prospect of any ilk, let alone one of his calibre.

One idea to bridge the divide was to pump the brakes on his throwing by alternating outings of five and two innings for the first part of the season and, if all seemed fine physically, easing the reins from that point forward. Pearson bought in, stuck to it through July and then capped off a three-level year with 18 innings over three starts at triple-A Buffalo.

“We looked at my past and how many innings I’d thrown in a year and we knew a baseline of what we’d be able to expect,” Pearson said in an interview Thursday while in Toronto for the club’s annual development program. “They came up with a number – 125 – and that’s what we tried to get to. Doing the five-two thing limited my innings early on and when they let me go, I missed a couple of starts because of a minor groin tweak. That set me back, but I ended up getting over 100 innings which was a successful year.

“I’m looking forward to what they have for me this year.”

The mapping out of Pearson’s 2020 workload is just getting started, but how the Blue Jays handle the on-the-cusp 23-year-old with ace upside will be their most heavily scrutinized management of a pitcher since Aaron Sanchez’s Cy-Young calibre 2016.

Nate Pearson pitches during the MLB Futures game.

Sanchez, you may recall, was coming off a season of 99.2 innings when he emerged into one of the American League’s best pitchers. Despite that, once he surged past his previous career-high of 133.1 innings that summer, the Blue Jays planned to transition him to the bullpen.

Ultimately, the club bailed on that plan, using feel and smarts and data to finesse Sanchez through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. In all he logged 203.2 frames and emerged from the year healthy (those pesky blisters didn’t really emerge until 2017).

And while his case is far from a direct parallel for Pearson, the experiences with him in ’16 and Pearson last year offer a rough framework for how to move forward.

“A lot of time with these things, you don’t know 100 per cent if it’s always the right thing to do,” said Gil Kim, the club’s director of player development. “But we were constantly evaluating how Nate was feeling and how the body was reacting and as we saw positives there, we continued to increase his workload.”

Those evaluations weren’t simply based on how Pearson said he was feeling, although that certainly played a significant role. The Blue Jays also pulled in pitch data and biometric information tracked by the club’s high-performance department, including regular measures of both strength and fatigue, to make ongoing assessments of how his body was holding up.

As he amassed 101.2 frames across three levels – his first time breaking triple-digits in innings since logging 101 innings during his draft year of 2017 – Pearson said he “didn’t really notice any changes” in how strong he felt on the mound.

“I knew I could do it,” he added. “I trained really hard to keep my body in shape for that and I knew I was going to be able to attack it.”

Attack it Pearson did, posting a cumulative ERA of 2.30 and WHIP of 0.885 with 119 strikeouts at advanced-A Dunedin, double-A New Hampshire and Buffalo.

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With enticing triple-digit velocity on his fastball, a wipe-out slider he honed relentlessly last year using Rapsodo data and Edgertronic cameras, a curveball and a changeup, he already has the tools to compete in the big-leagues.

Barring a major surprise, however, Pearson will open the season in Buffalo, where his eventual arrival to the majors will be the subject of constant speculation the way the promotions for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette were last year.

Prepare for the sequel.

“I have to be consistent every five days, continue my development, continue my pitch designs and at the end it will all take care of itself,” said Pearson. “Everyone is in a rush to get to the big-leagues. They want to make sure I’m ready. I’m all for that. Obviously, I want to break with the team out of spring training. The odds are that may not happen. I’m expecting to go out to triple-A and put up some good numbers and hopefully get a call-up sometime next year.”

Lurking in the background will be the workload issue, one Pearson and the Blue Jays handled well in 2019, one that may prove more difficult to navigate in 2020 if his dominance continues uninterrupted. At stake is an asset worth millions to the team, and the potential to eventually earn millions for the young right-hander.

Caution and prudence must rule the day.

“I certainly know I’m not invincible given that I got hit by a line drive (that broke his forearm in 2018); I’ve gone through various injuries (including a stress fracture of his right elbow in high school),” said Pearson. “I try to be smart about what I do, what actions I take on the field, in the weight room, or even outside the field, playing basketball or something. I try to be cautious. I know I’m not invincible. I know I’ve got to be smart about my body and I have to be able to be healthy on the field to have the success I dream of having.”

A success the Blue Jays dream of him having, too.

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