Blue Jays prospect Pearson eyes big year after ‘special’ debut season

(Frank Gunn/CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Nate Pearson’s first professional baseball season couldn’t have gone much better.

Including the playoffs, the 21-year-old right-hander posted a 0.96 ERA with 40 strikeouts in 28 innings last year. He allowed just 11 hits in 10 starts. His team, the Vancouver Canadians, won the Northwest League championship.

Afterwards, Baseball America named Pearson the fourth-best prospect in the entire Blue Jays entire system. And as he prepares for his first full season of pro baseball, he has a chance to advance his prospect stock even further.

“My goal wasn’t to get that much publicity,” Pearson said at the club’s Bobby Mattick Training Centre Saturday.

But after such a strong debut, he’s eager to continue testing himself against more advanced hitters.

“It makes you think you can do a lot of things,” he said.

The Blue Jays had high hopes for Pearson when they selected him 28th overall in last summer’s draft. They had seen him throw harder than 100 m.p.h. while pitching at the College of Central Florida, and they were intrigued by his off-speed stuff. Even then, they couldn’t have counted on results quite this encouraging.

“Performance-wise, he dominated,” director of player development Gil Kim said. “Just as importantly for him and the organization, he cemented himself as somebody who’s as committed to his routines and his preparation as anything else.”

Kim describes Pearson as reserved and serious off the mound, someone who makes his teammates better. Once he’s pitching, that demeanour changes.

“When he’s on top of that mound, you can note that presence,” Kim said. “You can see the fire in his body and in his eyes as well on the mound … When you’re there watching him compete, it’s something special.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Listed at 6-foot-6 and 245 lb., Pearson’s physically imposing. Last year he put on some weight during the season, so he worked to improve his eating habits over the winter to slim down a little and improve his stamina on the mound.

Now that he has reported to spring training, he’s hoping to improve his off-speed pitches to complement the hard stuff. Beyond the big fastball, Pearson has three secondary pitches. He describes his change-up as his most trustworthy off-speed pitch, and yet he didn’t need it much against lower-minors hitters. Beyond that there’s a swing-and-miss slider and a curve.

“He’s a power pitcher with late life to his fastball, a true out-pitch slider and a pretty good developing change-up,” Kim said.

Wary of overusing a prized prospect after his junior college season, the Blue Jays didn’t ask Pearson to turn a lineup over three times or throw more than 72 pitches at any point during the 2017 regular season. Improving those off-speed pitches would allow him to offer hitters different looks once he starts pitching deeper into games.

“As my velo gets better, my off-speed keeps getting better, and they play off each other,” he said.

During the off-season, Pearson lives in Oldsmar, Fla. — just a short drive away from the Blue Jays’ minor-league training facility. One day last month he played catch with Aaron Sanchez, a former first-round pick with electric stuff of his own. Along the way, Sanchez shared some advice.

“Just be in the now and not focus on the future the whole time,” Sanchez told Pearson. “Focus on where you’re at now, enjoy the stops that you make. Vancouver, Lansing, Dunedin. Take mental pictures of where you’re at now, so that when you do make it to the top, you’re able to look back and enjoy those.”

Pearson hopes to start the 2018 season with the Blue Jays’ advanced-A Dunedin affiliate, but he understands that the front office could operate more deliberately and start him with class-A Lansing.

“I want to move as quick as I can without getting too (far) ahead of myself,” Pearson said. “You don’t want to jump up too early and have to come back down because you weren’t ready.”

Based on the way the 2017 season ended, Pearson’s undoubtedly ready for another challenge. Kim won’t soon forget the image of the right-hander walking off the field at Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium in front of a full house during last year’s playoffs.

“Striking out the side in the first inning and screaming into his glove,” Kim recalled. “It’s something that I think a lot of us are going to remember. When we see him in Toronto doing the same thing, it’s going to be pretty cool.”

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