“That wouldn’t be fair to the kid,” manager Charlie Montoyo said before watching the top pitching prospect allow four runs – all in the first inning – on five hits with two walks and five strikeouts over 3.2 frames in the team’s first game versus a rival club since March 12, an 8-6 comeback win. “I’m just hoping he does what he does, building on the way he’s been pitching. He’s facing a pretty good lineup so that’s a great test.”
Regardless of how you grade the exam – at times, he looked like a 23-year-old pitching in a big-league stadium for the first time, more often, he simply overmatched his opponents – what’s fair to the kid is a spot in the Blue Jays rotation.
Even under these bizarre circumstances, Pearson has earned it, building off an impressive showing at the first spring training during the pandemic shutdown, and looking sharp again throughout summer camp in Toronto with his elite, nearly unrivalled arsenal. Against the Red Sox, he generated eight swinging strikes on 63 pitches – three on fastballs, three on sliders, two on changeups – sitting at 95.1 m.p.h. with his heater while topping out at 98.1.
Not bad for an outing in which he struggled to command his fastball.
Pearson settled himself down after surrendering a three-run homer to Mitch Moreland in the first, on a 95.3 m.p.h. fastball he left out over the plate. And he will benefit from the experience of resetting himself after feeling “a bunch of nerves” in a big-league environment, even if the usually hostile Fenway Park stands were empty.
To say that he can make similar developmental strides at the club’s Alternative Training Site is as implausible as it is to say that the right-hander isn’t among the five best Blue Jays starting pitchers right now. Still, his fate is more a business decision than it is a baseball decision, which is why his status remains uncertain with opening day rosters due Thursday afternoon.
“I felt like I put myself in the best position I can to make this team,” said Pearson. “Whether they say I made or not, I’m still going to keep working as hard as I normally do and I know my time will come at some point this year. Just got to roll with the punches and keep getting back on the horse. I didn’t have the best outing today. It’s tough being my last spring training outing, but I showed them what I can do throughout all whole spring training, that’s what I have to roll with.”
What complicates things for the Blue Jays is that if they hold him down for roughly a week and a half, they can push his free agency back by a full season. If Pearson becomes what he’s projected to be, that season is worth tens of millions, and viewed strictly through a business lens, having him break camp borders on negligence.
The thing is, the way teams manipulate service time is a corrosive force that can strain the relationship between player and team, even with someone as aware and savvy as Pearson. For a club seeking to establish a true meritocracy, the Blue Jays can’t say they’re breaking camp with their best team, as they’ve promised to do all camp, if he’s not on it.
“I got to face him in live BP in Toronto and then I saw him in the spring, just a couple of at-bats, and obviously if you throw 100, everything is going to follow on course,” said centre-fielder Randal Grichuk. “But he had a good breaking ball, threw a changeup, good slider – he’s got it all. With him being a big guy on the mound, too, his release point is closer to the plate, the ball’s getting on you quicker, gets you to feel more uncomfortable. It’s definitely good to have him on our side.”
Further, there’s a danger in the message holding back such an important potential weapon would send to a young roster whose uber-confidence was continually cited by president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins as reasons why signing ace Hyun-Jin Ryu made sense.
If the Blue Jays believe in their players as much as they say, and they’re all about winning, then surrendering the extra season of control is simply the cost of doing business when you’re trying to win. Should Pearson become a front of the rotation pillar, then it would make sense to try and extend him well before that extra year of control becomes a factor, anyway.
Now, the calculus might be different if the minor leagues were running this year, but they’re not. To say Pearson is going to do anything at the Alternative Training Site that would benefit him more than pitching in the majors is ludicrous.
Consider his process working through fastball command issues early in the outing.
“You problem solve, you look at where you’re missing,” said Pearson. “I was missing high and I was also missing down and away to righties, like really bad. I had to figure out what I was doing and I figured it out in the third and fourth inning that I was collapsing on my back leg and I wasn’t staying tall enough. As soon as I was able to figure that out, I told Pete (Walker, the pitching coach) ‘I figured it out. Let’s go.’ I told (Danny Jansen) ‘keep calling the heater, I’m going to get it back.’ And eventually, I started getting it back there.”
There is nothing the Blue Jays can create this season to replicate that game experience, which is why there can be no logical explanation for a demotion later this week. Such a move would be a blatant manipulation of service time.
The players association would surely consider grieving such a decision, and unlike the failed filing recently settled in favour of the Chicago Cubs over Kris Bryant, there’s less subjective decision-making here.
Pearson won’t be bumping an experienced big-leaguer out of a roster spot with teams carrying 30 players out of the gate. And there’s nowhere else for him to get the one thing he really needs – meaningful innings. It would be a case that has a real shot.
Getting to that point would be a terrible outcome for the Blue Jays, who have positioned themselves as an organization that puts players first. In Pearson’s case, putting the player first means putting him on the opening day roster, even if the cost of a week and a half, ends up being a full year.