Back on the Nate Pearson hype train

September 23rd, 2022

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.

Remember the days of the hype train? 

It was a simpler time in 2019. A 22-year-old Pearson had just come back from a lost season to post a 2.30 ERA, his 100 mph fastball carrying him to Triple-A as the No. 1 prospect in the organization. The Blue Jays had their future ace. Life was good.  

The years since have been complicated and frustrating, but Pearson, now 26, is making a late-season push to join the Blue Jays for the postseason as a reliever. Injuries have plagued the towering 6-foot-6 right-hander -- most recently a lat strain that shut him down midsummer -- but he’s worked his way back to Triple-A and made five scoreless appearances.  

On Sept. 21, Pearson worked 1 1/3 innings, recording all four outs via strikeout while touching 99 mph. It was his first multi-inning appearance of this rehab stint -- which was entirely by design. 

"We’re kind of seeing how he recovers and trying to get him multiple innings,” interim manager John Schneider said. "Everything last night? The velocity was there, the breaking ball was there. We like what we see. It’s just a matter of how he bounces back and [if he's] able to provide multiple innings. We’ll see how the next couple of days go, then another outing." 

This represents a small pivot for Toronto. Earlier in his rehab, the Blue Jays were looking to get Pearson action in back-to-back games, suggesting a single-inning role was likelier. Now that a multi-inning role is being prioritized, though, it’s easy to think back to Pearson’s finest moment in the big leagues.

In Game 2 of the 2020 AL Wild Card Series, Pearson entered in relief against the Rays and struck out five over two perfect innings. That also came at the end of a season dragged down by injuries, but it was a glimpse of who Pearson can be at his very best.

This still leaves the Blue Jays with a difficult decision, though. After Pearson spent the entire regular season in a start-and-stop cycle of rehabbing, can he confidently be added to the bullpen in a postseason race already so close to the finish? There would be no time to settle in, no time to play with roles and no room for error. 

"It’s definitely unique," Schneider said. "You look at stuff and you look at overall health. If those things are there, he’s pitched at this level before. He pitched in the postseason in the building, albeit with no fans and all of that stuff, a different kind of atmosphere. It’s knowing the person, looking at the stuff and listening to how he’s feeling physically." 

Pearson does offer something the Blue Jays lack, though, which is velocity. The club has long lagged behind the rest of baseball in this area, and while the organization is doing a much better job of developing velocity now -- an encouraging trend that will bear fruit in the coming years -- Toronto still lacks the assembly line of 100-mph relievers other clubs have discovered.   

If Pearson is able to do that across two innings, that’s a bonus. Since Ross Stripling moved into the rotation, the Blue Jays have also lacked a true “bulk” reliever who sticks in the role, and Pearson represents a modern version of that, both in late 2022 and beyond. There are still so many “ifs” involved here, though, and it sounds like Pearson will need to put together at least one more solid outing in Triple-A before this is a conversation. 

If it gets to that point, and he's able to rejoin the bullpen down the stretch, Pearson comes loaded with upside. It’s the same upside that has both excited and frustrated Blue Jays fans for years now, always floating on the horizon but rarely coming close, but the talent is too tantalizing to ignore.