The Blue Jays are promoting Alek Manoah, the club's No. 5 prospect per MLB Pipeline, to make Wednesday night’s start in New York against the Yankees, manager Charlie Montoyo told reporters on Tuesday. The move is not yet official.
This is the move that Blue Jays fans have been clamoring for since Manoah broke out as the star of Spring Training with two dominant outings against these same Yankees, throwing a combined five shutout innings with 11 strikeouts.
The lights shine a little brighter at Yankee Stadium in the regular season, though, especially for a debut as anticipated as Manoah’s. The big right-hander has opened his season in Triple-A by going 3-0 with a 0.50 ERA, putting more pressure on the Blue Jays with each pitch. He’s struck out 27 batters over 18 innings with just three walks, and while the mighty Yankees are an intimidating first test, Manoah’s personality is built for the big stage.
“One of the things I’m so excited about is Alek’s time away from the field and the time he’s not pitching, how consistent he’s been,” general manager Ross Atkins said recently. “The time when he can do things to improve his career and do things to be consistent when he is on the mound. It’s been incredible. He’s been one of the most consistent with his routines, with his work in Triple-A.”
There is so much focus on players' physical abilities, whether that be a pitcher’s slider or a hitter’s ability to lay off the slider, but these words -- especially “routines” -- should sound familiar to Blue Jays fans.
Back in 2018 and early 2019, when No. 1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was pushing for his big league debut, it was never his bat that needed more work. Even as a teenager, Vlad could hit big league pitching. Sure, his defense needed some polish, but it was Guerrero’s “routines” and daily work that you so often heard referenced by the front office.
In hindsight, that’s made more sense. In Guerrero’s case, that meant taking control of his fitness, something he did this past offseason which has led to an incredible start to 2021. It’s just as important for a pitcher, especially one like Manoah who, over his very brief experience in the Minors, hasn’t experienced much failure.
“Obviously, he’s pitching very well, which is awesome to see, especially knowing how the last couple of years have gone with everything. The biggest thing with his transition is that, when he gets to the big leagues, his day-to-day routine,” said Matt Buschmann, the Blue Jays’ bullpen coach and director of pitching development. “It’s how you go from a prospect to a good Major League pitcher. How do you prevent coming up here and having the highs and lows, knowing there’s four months left in the season? Now, you’re pitching every fifth day against really good teams.”
Simply put, this is about the Blue Jays promoting Manoah the person, not just Manoah the pitcher.
In a perfect world, perhaps the Blue Jays would prefer to give Manoah more time after throwing just 35 innings in the Minor Leagues. The impact of the lost 2020 season is difficult to quantify, of course, but it’s still not a traditional development path. The Blue Jays’ need in the rotation has gone from pressing to urgent, though, and another “bullpen day” on Wednesday doesn’t sound all that attractive coming off six straight losses within the division.
An aggressive promotion like this is done with Manoah’s long-term future in mind, of course, but No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson continues to show that development is not always linear. Pearson missed the tail end of camp and most of April with a right adductor strain before finally returning to the Blue Jays, but proceeded to walk five batters in a rough 2021 debut on May 9 against the Astros and was sent back to Triple-A. Manoah almost certainly won’t post a 0.50 ERA in the big leagues, but with a team expected to compete this season, the Blue Jays will need him to perform, not just show flashes.
Development still needs to be part of the equation, though, even if it’s a smaller part.
“There’s always something [to improve], even with the best of the best,” Atkins said. “He could be better with his command, he could probably be better with his changeup usage, using his breaking ball in different counts or behind in counts. His fastball is such an effective weapon that he has to challenge himself against certain hitters to use his entire arsenal.”
Manoah, who recently crept into MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list and is currently ranked 97th, features a mid-90s fastball that reaches up to 97 mph, and you’ll see his slider often as a putaway pitch. He also features a changeup that is a bit more raw, and recently toyed with a sinking fastball in a Triple-A start.
This Blue Jays’ rotation has its ace in Hyun Jin Ryu, but finding upside behind the left-hander remains one of their biggest priorities. Robbie Ray has reinvented himself of late and Steven Matz had some success in April, but it’s arms like Manoah -- with Pearson and Thomas Hatch coming behind him -- who could help breathe life into this rotation through the summer.