Nate Pearson setback complicates Blue Jays’ opening day roster decisions

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins spoke about the team picking up manager Charlie Montoyo’s option for 2022, and what he brings to the club as they enter a new phase in development.

TORONTO – A side session with the potential to set up Nate Pearson for a spot on the opening day roster is instead forcing the Toronto Blue Jays to reconsider how to best break camp.

The laser-armed righty cut his bullpen short Tuesday after he experienced what GM Ross Atkins described as a “mild re-aggravation” of the right groin strain that’s sidelined him since March 1. While the extent of the damage will be re-assessed in the coming days, it’s hard to imagine how Pearson avoids the injured list to begin the campaign.

That gives swingman Ross Stripling “a leg up” for his place in the rotation, said Atkins, which in turn opens up a long relief role in the bullpen, and has the Blue Jays considering a second, too.

For T.J. Zeuch – firmly in the mix after his fastball averaged 93.8 m.p.h. and touched 95.9 during three shutout innings Monday that Atkins called “a very good day for the organization” – Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch and Trent Thornton, that suddenly means plans to keep them stretched out at the alternate training site could be put on hold.

“We are open to thinking about guys in a short-term different capacity,” said Atkins, “but we want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the value of a starting pitcher.”

Indeed, and that’s why the silver-lining depictions of Pearson’s early-season absence offering a workload management blessing – even if he doesn’t miss much time – are cold comfort.

More than anything, the Blue Jays need Pearson pitching to both build up his physical base and work through the growing pains that remain from his previous years of lost time.

The same applies to the other young starters who could be transitioned into a relief role, but given the delay in the start of the minor-league season, getting real reps in the majors is probably more valuable to them than putting in work at the alternate site.

Either way, Pearson’s absence highlights the delicate balance of asset-management the Blue Jays have lying before them in the days ahead.

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As things stand, the Blue Jays seem poised to run with a rotation of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, Tanner Roark – who delivered three solid innings before a rough fourth in Tuesday’s 14-5 thrashing of the Philadelphia Phillies – and Stripling.

In the bullpen, Kirby Yates, Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Tyler Chatwood, David Phelps and Ryan Borucki appear locked in.

Assuming the club breaks with nine relievers, that leaves three open spots, one of which appears destined for non-roster invitee Francisco Liriano, who has an out in his contract March 25. We’ll get to the other two openings in a minute.

The Blue Jays will have to clear a 40-man roster spot for Liriano, so that means someone has to go. Utilityman Joe Panik is also on a minor-league deal with an out March 25, while veteran lefty Tommy Milone has an out March 27. Leverage reliever A.J. Cole, an important part of the 2020 bullpen, has an out May 15, so he can be stashed on the five-man taxi squad for a bit.

Additionally, the Blue Jays have two players who are out of options in catcher Reese McGuire, who has been outplayed thus far by phenom Alejandro Kirk, and utilityman Breyvic Valera, who likely would have made the team last year if pandemic travel restrictions hadn’t left him trapped in Venezuela.

Trying to sneak both through waivers is one way to create 40-man space for both Liriano and Panik. But if the Blue Jays lost McGuire, Kirk and Danny Jansen would be the only catchers in the organization with big-league experience, and Riley Adams, who finished 2019 at double-A New Hampshire, would be next on the depth chart.

Valera, meanwhile, is a speedy switch-hitter who has fans in the front office, and they’d be loath to lose him again after the San Diego Padres claimed him last year.

For those reasons, the McGuire-versus-Kirk debate isn’t solely who’s the better player, while the Panik-versus-Valera conversation – one which excludes a deserving Jonathan Davis, who can be optioned – is likely decided by who the Blue Jays feel they can sneak onto the taxi squad.

As Atkins noted, “certainly we do have to think about getting through the course of the season. How do we not only manage that 26-man, but also players who aren’t on the 40-man and keep our organization as strong as we can? How we’ll focus these decisions in the coming weeks will be based on putting the best team together for those first couple of series and not entirely focused on opening day. What’s the best team to play against the Yankees and the Angels? And how do we build the best bullpen for that while we’re maintaining the strength of our organization and hopefully holding on to pieces that are beyond that 40-man group?”

Hence, the juggling act, and why the Blue Jays would ideally love to stash a few of their minor-league contracts on the taxi squad, with the carrot of a quick call up if needed.

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.

All of which leads back to the bullpen, which will require some relievers with options that can be shuttled in and out as the need for fresh arms arises. Romano and Borucki are the only sure bets with options but they’re not up-and-down types, which means the final two spots go to the ride-the-train candidates.

The Blue Jays hope Julian Merryweather, yet to pitch in a game this spring because of back tightness, is back pitching in games soon if he doesn’t have another setback. Provided he’s ready, he ends up in one spot and offers the ability to be optioned as well as some length, as last summer five of his eight appearances were two innings long.

“The way he was used last year is how we’re thinking about him for this year,” said Atkins.

If not, then there are two potential openings for Kay, Zeuch, Hatch and Thornton to help hold the fort for Pearson, who after a second setback may need a longer recovery to avoid the groin injury persisting all year.

The Blue Jays have two weeks to figure out the best setup, not just for opening day, but for the sixth months that follow, too.

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