TORONTO – When the Toronto Blue Jays begin their season Friday night, manager Charlie Montoyo will have plenty of arms at his disposal. From reigning NL ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu and closer Ken Giles to anonymous middle relievers like Brian Moran and A.J. Cole, the Blue Jays found room for 15 different pitchers on their opening day roster.
Nate Pearson, the 23-year-old whose powerful right arm makes him one of the sport’s most promising pitching prospects, was not among them. He’s on the club’s taxi squad rather than the roster itself, able to travel with the Blue Jays but still unable to pitch for them. The unspoken reason for his omission from the roster is at once understandable and infuriating. For baseball fans, that paradox is becoming all too familiar.
Let’s start with the infuriating part. Pearson’s raw stuff can be overwhelming. His fastball sits at 95 m.p.h. and sometimes approaches triple-digits. Not only does he have a wipeout slider, he spent the last few months refining a promising change-up and a developing curve.
But pitching on a backfield is one thing. To develop further, Pearson needs to challenge himself in games, just as he did in an up-and-down outing at Fenway Park Tuesday evening. And with no minor-league season happening, the major-leagues are the best place – the only place – for those confrontations.
Less-heralded prospects like Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay and Santiago Espinal now get to test themselves in a way that Pearson doesn’t. Those three rookies, all of whom were acquired in recent summer trades (for David Phelps, Marcus Stroman and Steve Pearce, respectively), were all named to the opening day roster Thursday. But while their development continues, others have to wait.
Even though Pearson’s among the organization’s most talented pitchers and the best place for his continued development is the majors, he’s not on the roster. MLB teams are obliged to make roster decisions based on merit rather than service time, but if there’s a compelling reason for Pearson’s absence that doesn’t have anything to do with service time it’s tough to find.
Here’s the essence of the decision the Blue Jays faced. If Pearson were to play a full season in 2020, he’d become eligible for free agency after the 2025 season. If he were to play less than a full season, he’d become eligible for free agency a year later, after the 2026 season.
So how long would Pearson have to spend in the minors to ensure he falls short of a full year in 2020? Less time than you might think. Any player who accrues at least 62 days of service time this summer qualifies for a full year. But if Pearson were to debut next Wednesday or any point after that, he’d obtain no more than 61 days of service time (three days in July + 31 days in August + 27 days in September = 61 total).
Viewed through that lens, the decision amounts to this: would you rather have Pearson for the first five days of the 2020 season, or for a full year in 2026? As talented as Pearson is, are the Blue Jays significantly worse off if he starts the seventh game of the season instead of, say, the third? It’s already late-July. Does his development suffer that much more if his debut waits another week or two? And while Pearson would prefer to open the year in the majors, couldn’t the club restore any damage to that relationship in the years to come?
From a business standpoint, this can start to look like an easy decision. By deferring gratification just a little longer, the club reaps far greater benefits in the future. To be fair, teams do have the agency to honour the spirit of competition and field the best team they can. The Braves broke camp with Jason Heyward in Bobby Cox’s final season. The Padres rostered Fernando Tatis Jr. for all of last year. Pitching prospect Brady Singer just learned he made the Royals.
It’s reasonable and unreasonable all at once. It happens because baseball’s players and owners continue to sign off on a collective agreement that keeps some of the sport’s most talented players off the field longer than necessary. Big picture, that’s a problem worth addressing in the next CBA. In the meantime, the wait for Pearson lasts a little longer.