After consecutive injury-derailed springs, enjoying healthy start is crucial for Nate Pearson in 2023
Photo credit:Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
By Thomas Hall7 months ago
Few Toronto Blue Jays pitchers need to avoid the injury bug this spring more than Nate Pearson, who is entering a pivotal 2023 season with the franchise.
Pearson, a former top prospect within the Blue Jays’ farm system, has been plagued by numerous injuries since being selected 28th overall in 2017, preventing him from surpassing 100 innings pitched in all but one of his seven professional seasons. Over the last two campaigns, the 26-year-old has suffered a significant ailment in consecutive spring training sessions, causing him to open the regular season on the injured list.
A case of mononucleosis – also referred to as “mono” – sidelined Pearson last spring, delaying his 2022 season debut until late May, when he made a rehab appearance with low-A Dunedin. The year before, he was hindered by an abductor strain, which ultimately required surgery, leading to another extended absence. His ramp-up routine was also interrupted in 2020 thanks to the widespread COVID-related stoppage.
It has been three straight seasons of hijacked spring training appearances for Pearson, adding to the difficulty of enjoying a productive performance across an entire summer. And there’s no doubt these interruptions have significantly impacted his craft when healthy, as he has consistently operated from behind the eight ball rather than enjoying an uninterrupted start to the campaign – a less-than-ideal outcome for any pitcher, let alone someone attempting to find his way back to the majors.
As with every new season, though, the 2023 campaign brings newfound optimism regarding the 6-foot-6 hurler’s chances of turning the corner on his prolonged injury woes. The Blue Jays have found themselves in a similar position in previous years, wondering when their talented youngster will finally catch a break regarding his on-field availability. They’ve been disappointed in the past, but at the moment, things are trending in a positive direction this spring.
On the first official day of spring training, where pitchers and catchers participating in the 2023 World Baseball Classic were due to report to Toronto’s player development complex in Dunedin, Pearson was seen working out alongside fellow Blue Jays pitchers – including Drew Hutchison, who signed a minor-league deal over the off-season.
The right-hander also threw a side session on Monday, which sparked plenty of excitement amongst the fan base, and understandably so. After all, he remains one of the more intriguing pitchers to watch as spring training commences.
There wasn’t much to draw from Pearson’s first media-accessible outing. It does appear he has made a few minor mechanical adjustments to his delivery, reverting to the previous windup that he once featured as a starting pitcher as opposed to the quicker and more explosive one he displayed in the minors last season.
It is also worth noting that the Odessa, Fla., native looked healthy and completed his session without complications. Considering his lengthy injury history, that’s certainly a positive step for the Central Florida College standout.
Blue Jays manager John Schneider was also encouraged by Pearson’s performance, particularly his command of the strike zone – an aspect he’s struggled with in prior seasons. Though it may be early, there has been plenty to like about the hard-throwing righty’s consistency thus far, according to Schneider.
After being limited to 15.1 innings across two minor-league levels (low-A, triple-A) in 2022, Pearson enters this spring following a strong performance with the Tigres del Licey of the Dominican Winter League, where he worked as a one-inning reliever over 12 appearances. His tenure was brief, although it allowed him to catch up on the time he lost while recovering from a lat strain.
It wasn’t long before he emerged as one of the most dominating pitchers in winter ball, albeit against much lesser competition than he faced previously in North America.
Pearson proved his value as a relief pitcher, allowing just five hits and zero earned runs in 12 innings with the Tigres del Licey, registering 16 strikeouts compared to four walks. The young righty finished tied for the 10th-highest K/9 (12.0) among Dominican League relievers.
Unless the Blue Jays suggest otherwise, Pearson is likely to spend this spring building up as a multi-inning reliever, a role he was accustomed to in the minors last season. But with two minor-league options remaining, there is no guarantee he will break camp with the big-league club at the end of March, meaning he has to prove himself to Toronto’s coaching staff again.
To do that, however, the former top prospect must stay healthy throughout the entire spring. He hasn’t accomplished that feat since the 2019 season, which coincided with his breakout performance. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the top showing of his professional career occurred during the same year he avoided the IL out of the gate – look at how things have played out since then.
Staying healthy over the next several weeks should help Pearson produce improved results in 2023, but doing so could also prevent him from dropping down the Blue Jays’ depth chart. Unless injuries arise in the bullpen, there won’t be room available for any internal roster battles this spring, likely pushing multiple deserving arms – like Pearson and Zach Pop, for example – to triple-A Buffalo.
On the other hand, if the towering right-hander excels, he could potentially force the organization’s hand to create space on the major-league roster. That could lead to exploring a trade for Adam Cimber or Trevor Richards, as both would likely be the most expendable since neither possesses any minor-league options and are much lower on the totem pole compared to the rest of the group.
The Blue Jays must first observe Pearson in game situations before making any final decisions, though. They still need to evaluate what type of impact he could make this season. But as a multi-inning reliever, he could make a pretty sizeable contribution even if he opens the campaign at triple-A.
Aside from Mitch White and Yusei Kikuchi – who is now sporting a beard – Schneider’s bullpen doesn’t consist of many hurlers who can pitch more than one inning. That might be manageable during the early stages. But once the dog days of summer arrive, he’ll need to turn to someone capable of eating innings in relief, especially since Ross Stripling isn’t around to act as the club’s saviour anymore.
Pearson isn’t the only potential candidate that could thrive in this role, as Toronto’s upper-tier prospect system consists of many intriguing high-velocity hurlers. None of them, however, have nearly as much riding on the 2023 campaign as the former first-round selection does.
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