What's next for Alek Manoah?

August 27th, 2023

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.

If you’d asked me, on the February day I arrived in Dunedin, Fla., for Spring Training, which questions I’d be asking about  in late August, that list would have looked a little something like this:

Does Manoah have a shot at 200 innings?

Has the projection of a moderate regression come knocking, or has the Blue Jays’ defense kept Manoah alive as a fringe Cy Young Award candidate?

Who lines up as the Game 1 starter in the postseason: Manoah or Kevin Gausman?

Things have … changed.

Instead, sitting in the office of manager John Schneider this past week in Cincinnati, the questions were:

“Where exactly is Alek Manoah? Is he still in Toronto? Has he joined the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons yet?”

Manoah had been optioned to Triple-A on Aug. 11, but curiously stayed in Toronto for a prolonged stretch instead of joining the Bisons. The Blue Jays initially said that they were trying to “figure out the right time, physically” for Manoah to join the Triple-A rotation, which tracked with how they handled his first demotion earlier this season. But it still felt very unusual given the urgency of a postseason race and Manoah’s standing as -- presumably -- the No. 6 starter.

Then, when Manoah finally did join the Triple-A club 11-12 days after being optioned, general manager Ross Atkins shared his reasoning. Manoah had been undergoing physical tests in Toronto, which must have been rather detailed, given the timeline.

“It was to make sure that he was in the best possible physical place before he went back there,” Atkins said Friday. “Taking the opportunity, with our very thorough medical staff that is here in Toronto, to check that box before he reported to Buffalo.”

Manoah is expected to take his spot in Buffalo’s rotation soon, but now that we’re past the uncomfortable question of Manoah’s status, it brings us all to the matter of Manoah’s long-term role with this club.

“We were seeing a lot of positive things,” Atkins said. “The things that we’ve talked about, like the command, the strike throwing, the swing-and-miss. We saw really positive trends. I think there’s a lot of scenarios where Alek could have still been here on this team and may still be here at some point this year, but there’s so many positives over the course of his career and we can still see plenty of reason to believe that he can be a force again.”

That sounds like a long road, one that likely begins in 2024.

Atkins said Friday that Manoah is not the club’s No. 6 starter right now, the result of the two weeks he’s spent out of a rotation.

Even with Manoah’s struggles this season, the big right-hander had looked marginally better in his recent outings and, at the very least, offered Toronto a No. 6 option should one of its current starters go down with injuries. It’s not a thought the Blue Jays want to entertain, but with a group of five veterans piling up heavy workloads, it’s something against which a contending team needs to be protected.

It’s possible that Manoah re-establishes himself as that “next man up” again in the next couple of weeks, but until then, it feels likeliest that the Blue Jays will go back to their strategy of using Trevor Richards as an opener, followed by Bowden Francis.

This all feels a thousand miles from where we stood in February, with Manoah coming off a third-place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting. He profiled as a homegrown ace, something the Blue Jays have tried to capture for years, and one of the faces of this franchise.

How the Blue Jays project Manoah in 2024 and beyond is now one of the biggest variables facing this organization. Hyun Jin Ryu is a free agent following 2023 and No. 1 prospect Ricky Tiedemann can’t be penciled in just yet, so the Blue Jays will need to address their rotation in some way. Can they write in Manoah’s name as one of their starting five next spring with confidence, or will another veteran arm be brought in to protect against more of what we’ve seen this summer?

This has all been such a harsh lesson in how baseball works. Careers can flip in an instant. It’s just as true that Manoah’s can flip back, which will be an incredible story to tell if that time comes, but this has been a season of unexpected and unusual twists.