The Blue Jays' pitching prospect receiving the most buzz these days is Alek Manoah, a recent addition to MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects class -- at No. 100. As with any prospect that reaches Triple-A and finds success there, which Manoah has so far, one obvious question looms: When might he make the ascent to MLB?
Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins conducted a wide-ranging media session on Sunday, and this was the first question he received.
“As it relates to the timing and how we’re making that decision, obviously his effectiveness is a huge piece of that equation,” Atkins said of Manoah, who has 17 strikeouts in 12 scoreless innings so far with Triple-A Buffalo. “It’s just not as simple as, ‘OK, he’s had two starts. Now let’s just see if it works in [the Majors].”
Atkins identified a few areas he hopes Manoah can improve upon in the Minors: better command, smarter changeup usage and willingness to use breaking balls in more varied situations (i.e. while working from behind in counts).
“His fastball is such an effective weapon that he has to challenge himself against certain hitters to use his entire arsenal,” Atkins said.
There’s a bit of a what-if with Manoah, who the Blue Jays selected 11th overall in the 2019 MLB Draft, because of how the 2020 season was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the shutdown of the Minor League season, Manoah missed out on what would’ve been his first full season as a pro.
He did participate at the alternate training site, but due to contracting COVID-19 he wasn’t able to participate as much as others. As far as his development goes, that lost time is being “factored in,” Atkins said.
“[Manoah] missed an opportunity there,” Atkins said. “However, he absolutely maximized his offseason and maximized Spring Training, and is getting absolutely every ounce out of Triple-A baseball right now.”
Whether Manoah stays in the Minors all season or not, his workload will be something to follow. Between college and Low-A Vancouver in 2019, Manoah tossed 125 1/3 innings, which Atkins identified as an “important marker” for how he can be used moving forward.
“He’s checking a lot of boxes as it relates to thinking about workload,” Atkins said. “It’s not something that we feel like we need to be restricting him by any means in development.”
Here are two additional takeaways from Atkins’s session.
Biggest need? A steady rotation
Due to injuries and a general lack of consistency from about 40% of the rotation, the Blue Jays have had to get creative in eating innings from the starting spot. By May 9, they’d already deployed a league-high 12 starters.
“If we were to write it up and describe what we feel is ideal, it would not be just mixing and matching,” Atkins said. “Sustainable to get by and be competitive? I think so.”
But is that the blueprint they’re targeting? No.
“Our goal is to have five effective starters and a rotation where we’re getting five, six, seven innings deep,” he said. “To have a bullpen that’s giving us three-to-four innings every night.”
So far, the bullpen has been asked to do quite a bit more than that. At 159 2/3 innings, Toronto’s relief corps ranks fourth in the Majors in usage. The group has responded admirably, though, with a 2.99 ERA (also fourth in MLB).
Wall, Moreno among prospects to watch
With as much talk as the Manoahs and the Nate Pearsons of the world receive, Atkins made sure to shower some praise on a couple of lesser-discussed prospects: catcher Gabriel Moreno (Double-A New Hampshire) and outfielder Forrest Wall (Triple-A).
Moreno, the No. 7 prospect in the Blue Jays’ system, is off to a white-hot start with the Fisher Cats, slashing .455/.526/.636 in his first eight games this season. Atkins noted Moreno’s approach, "and just how consistent and mature that has been,” as the 21-year-old takes on his highest level of pro ball so far.
In Wall’s case, Atkins called the Rockies’ former first-round pick (2014) an “incredible off-roster prospect.” Wall has gone 16-for-49 (.327) so far for Buffalo, with the type of speed that makes him an elite defender in Atkins’ eyes.
“I would imagine [he’ll] be on our roster at some point,” Atkins said. “And probably this year. I hope that, for him. … [I'm] really exceptionally encouraged by Forrest.”