What shortened season means for mapping out Nate Pearson’s MLB timeline

MLB insider Ben Nicholson-Smith joins Good Show to discuss a couple of Blue Jays prospects that might have a chance to make an impact in this shortened 2020 season.

TORONTO – Back in March, the expectation around Blue Jays camp was that Nate Pearson would begin the 2020 season at triple-A Buffalo.

Despite his status as the game’s best right-handed pitching prospect and his impressive spring training performance, there was a legitimate developmental case to be made for keeping Pearson in the minors a little longer. The best place to refine his curveball might be triple-A, where there’s less urgency to win and greater emphasis on maximizing potential. Plus, the Blue Jays had reason to be careful about workload after a season in which Pearson’s innings total jumped by 80.

Alongside those developmental questions was the reality that a few more weeks in the minors would give the Blue Jays an additional year of club control over Pearson. While Blue Jays staff gave the impression of being locked in on Pearson’s on-field development, some outside the organization noted that a few weeks in the minors would keep Pearson in Toronto through 2026 rather than 2025. If Pearson realizes his potential, that could be a significant year.

Now, almost every variable has changed. The 60-game MLB season will be the shortest in baseball history, big-league rosters are bigger than ever and the triple-A season likely won’t take place at all. If there’s a developmental case for keeping Pearson off the big-league roster, it’s hard to see. But with all of that said, the team could gain that extra year of service time more easily than ever in a shortened season.

On Sunday, the Blue Jays officially added Pearson to their player pool, making him eligible to contribute to the team in 2020. Health-permitting, he’ll make his debut this summer, assuming there is an MLB season. For that to happen, the Blue Jays will first have to find a home and until they have clarity on those next steps, the front office appears focused on logistics. That’s understandable, but soon enough, the Blue Jays will have answers on that front. At that point, they’ll face a significant question regarding Pearson’s future. Namely, will he spend the entire season at the MLB level?

Months ago, the idea of developing Pearson in the minors made some sense, but it now appears likely that the entire minor-league season will be cancelled. Without those games, it’s hard to see how Pearson’s development would be maximized by practicing with the Jays’ reserves.

Granted, development can happen outside of game settings. The last few months offer proof of that, as Pearson has worked out in Florida, refining his pitches in the Tampa area at places such as the KineticPro Baseball performance lab. Under the circumstances, that’s pretty resourceful, but if Pearson wants to know how his curve plays in games that matter, there’s only one place to find out: the majors.

Maybe that’s not ideal given the pressure of major-league games, but little about this 2020 season would be considered optimal. Teams simply have to do the best they can under the circumstances. With 30-man rosters, there’s certainly no shortage of space in the majors for Pearson (though he will require a 40-man roster spot once the Blue Jays select his contract and that means cutting someone else).

What’s more, any innings concerns that lingered around Pearson have likely eased by now. In a 60-game season, workhorse pitchers might log 60-70 innings with most starters falling well short of that mark. At this point, innings are a rather antiquated way of measuring workload, so the Blue Jays will of course measure fatigue in other ways, but it’s safe to say pitchers face a different physical challenge over two months than they would over six.

So, to recap:

• The majors are likely the only place Pearson can test his stuff in games this summer.

• There’s little reason to be concerned that Pearson’s 2020 workload will snowball out of control.

• He has the potential to help the Blue Jays win games.

• There’s room for him on the roster.

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.

Why, under those circumstances, would anyone even consider breaking camp without him? Well, let’s look at how service time will be calculated in this shortened season. According to a source familiar with the MLB rules, players will get a full year of service if they spend at least 62 days in the majors in 2020 (most years the minimum is 172 days). Or, put another way, any player who obtains less than 62 days of service time doesn’t get credit for the full year.

If this were a video game, a prudent GM might decide to keep Pearson in the minors for a week or so until early August then call him up for the remaining two months of the year with complete confidence that Pearson would get less than the 62 days required for a full year of service. On paper, one start in late July certainly isn’t worth the full year of club control the Blue Jays would get in 2026.

But of course Ross Atkins isn’t playing a video game here. The decision the front office makes will be monitored closely in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, by the Toronto fan base and within the offices of the MLBPA. All of those stakeholders would notice if Pearson doesn’t break camp and some might oppose such a decision loudly. When the team’s focus shifts back from logistics to development those voices will be worth considering.

It wasn’t long ago that starting Pearson in the minors looked defensible. Service time aside, there was a case to be made for sending him to Buffalo. But there was a triple-A season then, creating alternative settings for top prospects to develop in games. A few months later, it would be harder to justify keeping Pearson off the roster for baseball reasons.

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