TORONTO – As Corey Kluber gave the Toronto Blue Jays a glimpse of what might have been in the present, top pitching prospects Simeon Woods Richardson and Alek Manoah offered them an intriguing look at what might lie ahead in the future.
The juxtaposition between the two was front and centre in Wednesday night’s 4-1 Grapefruit League victory by the New York Yankees.
Kluber, the two-time Cy Young Award winner working his way back after consecutive seasons lost to injury, was an off-season target for the Blue Jays before he signed with the Yankees on a one-year, $11-million deal — a high-risk, high-reward add with the potential to impact the AL East landscape.
He struck out three batters over two perfect innings that he described as “pretty solid” afterward, pleased primarily to be getting game-reps in a competitive setting, while adding “obviously it was a bonus that it went well.”
That the outing came against an opponent that represented a path not taken over the winter didn’t seem to matter to the 34-year-old, who didn’t offer much about the level of consideration he gave to the Blue Jays.
“Any of the teams that were interested in me, I (don't think) I closed the book on them by any means,” he said. “I listened to everybody and tried to gather all the information we could and came to the decision we did in the end. I don’t think that changes the way I would have approached tonight, whether they would or would not have been interested this off-season. Either way, you only play for one team and the other 29 of them are the opponents, so trying to go out there and do the best I can for my team and my teammates.”
The same went for Woods Richardson and Manoah on that latter part.
Even though neither has pitched above A-ball, both promising right-handers have fast-track repertoires, displayed over a combined four innings of one-hit, one-walk work against a regular-season-quality lineup.
Woods Richardson, a 20-year-old who served as part of the return for Marcus Stroman, got the start and as he listened to the Yankees lineup being announced – D.J. LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Brett Gardner, Gary Sanchez, Jay Bruce and Derek Dietrich – it struck him that, “they're actually in the box, you're not watching guys on TV no more, you're actually facing them.”
Quickly he reset, throwing mostly a four-seamer that averaged 92.7 m.p.h. and topped out at 94.6, and a curveball that generated two whiffs, including a third strike on Stanton in the second. Not bad for his Grapefruit League debut.
“It was just don't try to do too much and be myself on the mound, you know?” Woods Richardson said of his self-talk as he took the field. “You might have seen me head-bobbing and shaking my head. It was just trying to be myself as much as possible and be as comfortable as possible. And yet, even though the adrenaline is coming in, anticipation of the game is coming, I still had to take a deep breath, get on the mound, attack the strike zone and just be myself.”
Manoah, the 23-year-old first-rounder in 2019, picked up right from there.
After Bruce’s single to lead off the third, Manoah struck out Dietrich on a 97.8 m.p.h. fastball that was his hardest of the outing (he averaged 96.8) and then induced a LeMahieu double play. Manoah opened the fourth by hitting Judge, but then struck out the side by catching Hicks looking at a slider, freezing Stanton with a sinker and getting Torres on a slider in the dirt.
It was big boy stuff, something Manoah said he was prepared for after the Blue Jays “threw me into the sharks” during live batting practice by pitting him against George Springer, Marcus Semien, Bo Bichette and Rowdy Tellez.
“For me, that was a really exciting moment to be able to throw against a Silver Slugger, MVP finalist and guys who played in some big games,” he said. “When I went into that outing I was extremely amped up. The location of my pitches wasn't as great. So tonight going in, I was able to use some of that adversity and some of that experience and, ‘Hey, we're going to face a good lineup tonight, but stay within yourself, your stuff is good, your stuff plays, go out there and just compete, man. Just have a good time and whatever happens, happens. … That was the headspace.”
Similarly impressive is how both young pitchers weren’t content to simply soak in the atmosphere, instead trying to leverage every bit of the opportunity before them.
Even before taking the mound, Manoah closely watched the Yankees hitters, “looking for tendencies.”
“Are guys watching the ball all the way into the mitt? Are they swinging at first pitches? Are they biting on sliders? What what kind of approach are they having?” he continued. “That kind of will tell me how the day is going to go for me. If I got guys that are going to swing at first pitches, hey, we're going to throw that sinker in there and let's get some ground balls. If we've got guys [who] are going to spit a little bit, hey let's get more of the plate, let's get them in a count where we've got them handcuffed a little bit, 1-2, 0-2.”
Woods Richardson also made a point of watching Kluber dice up the Blue Jays, focusing on the way “he attacked the zone and the way he could (use) his pitch selection to control the strike zone, and get guys to miss, and just to see how a former Cy Young winner operates. It was cool to match up against him for my first outing.”