Which version of Manoah shows up in 2024?

January 8th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Keegan Matheson’s Blue Jays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Each year, when a new season starts to creep over the horizon, I think about Day 1 of Spring Training.

The players will pour into the Blue Jays’ player development complex in Dunedin, Fla., with the same nervous excitement you once felt on the first day of school, only the new shoes and backpacks are replaced with new Range Rovers and Corvettes. This begins the wave of familiar faces strolling in from the parking lot … and just as many opportunities to quietly whisper, "Who’s that guy?"

At different points of the offseason, I'll ask myself which question -- or player -- I’m most interested in on Day 1. Three months ago, it was .

It’s still Alek Manoah.

Coming off a dreadful 2023 season that landed Manoah in the Minors twice, half-true theories growing new branches each time, Manoah enters ‘24 as the single biggest variable on this roster. There is a pitcher to be rebuilt here, of course, but that pitcher is a person first and foremost. The relationships Manoah has with the Blue Jays, his teammates and himself are important here. The baseball part can follow.

Manager John Schneider has kept in touch with Manoah over the offseason and planned to spend time with him in Miami. From observing Schneider over the years and speaking with so many of the players he’s managed, this feels like an opportunity for Schneider to shine as a leader.

“I don’t think the relationship ever changed,” Schneider said. “I get where it was a tough spot for him and a tough couple of weeks or months for Alek. Being as competitive as he is, he was frustrated at times being sent down like that. I’m confident that relationship is going to be strong. That’s something that, as I’m sitting after the season, I want to not lose sight of that. I think it’s easy to do so, especially in your first year when you’re dealing with a lot of different things, so it’s [about] keeping those player relationships in the forefront.”

So, who is Alek Manoah now? Is he a 2.24 ERA guy, beating his chest while his chains bounce off the Blue Jays’ logo following a strikeout … or is he a 5.87 ERA, a lion without its roar?

The answer is always hidden somewhere in the middle, but given the strength of their rotation with Kevin Gausman, José Berríos, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi, the Blue Jays don’t need Manoah to set the world on fire. If he can provide reliable, back-end innings and protect Toronto from dipping into its rotation depth -- which is not strong enough today -- that’s a success.

“It was, I assume, a big learning experience for him last year,” said Kevin Kiermaier, who faced Manoah in his dominant 2022 season before joining the Blue Jays. “He’s probably a guy who has never struggled his whole life. He was awesome in high school, really good at West Virginia, really good in the Minor Leagues, really good in the big leagues. Sometimes, you get punched in the mouth and see how you respond. I don’t think things went his way, but you’ve got to be a pro about a lot of certain things along the way.”

There it is. 

One of the biggest separating factors for young players is how they deal with failure or challenges on the field. For many top prospects, those failures don’t come until they’re on the biggest stage. Learning and adjusting against a 19-year-old is just slightly different than doing it against Aaron Judge and Mike Trout. 

Kiermaier felt at times that Manoah’s mental and physical game weren’t necessarily in sync, which will earn a nod of agreement from most who watched him pitch in 2023. You could sense in the veteran voice of Kiermaier that there is an urgency for Manoah to return to his old form, but also an understanding of what this game can do to a player, even those with gifts most others don’t have.

“He’ll have a clean slate heading into 2024,” Kiermaier said, “but I hope he’s as motivated as ever. When he is on his game, he’s one of the best pitchers in the game. When you see a teammate go through stuff like that, I would always want to remind him and say, ‘Hey, don’t forget how bad of a dude you are. You are one of the best on the planet.’”

Perhaps calling it the “old version of Manoah” is too dismissive. Who we saw in 2022 is the fullest, brightest version of him. That still exists. It’s just a question of how far beneath the surface both Manoah and the Blue Jays need to reach together.