Approaching a hybrid role for Nate Pearson with the Blue Jays next season

Photo credit:Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports
Tyson Shushkewich
1 year ago
Although the 2020 season was marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was one bright spot for the Toronto Blue Jays during the shortened campaign: top prospect Nate Pearson was going to pitch in the big leagues.
The Blue Jays’ top prospect at the time and former first-round pick out of the College of Central Florida was knocking on the big league doors and ready for a shot on the MLB stage. He had reached AAA in 2019 and was essentially dominant in every ballpark he stepped foot in, using his 6’6” frame to touch the high 90s and triple digits with his fastball while keeping hitters thinking of his plus offspeed as well. 
For Pearson, the biggest concern was in regards to his health, as a comebacker up the middle during his first start in 2018 sidelined him for the year while a barrage of other ailments and injuries limited him to just 121.2 innings from the middle of 2017 to the end of 2019. Once he reached the big leagues, Pearson was still struggling to stay healthy, with an arm injury, a sports hernia, a bout with mononucleosis, and a lat strain limiting him to just 17 appearances (five starts) from 2020 through 2021 with the Blue Jays, with the Florida product not making an appearance in the big leagues last year.

Pearson and his role with the Blue Jays in 2023…

While once projected to be the ace of the Blue Jays rotation, Pearson has shown he can be effective on the mound, evidenced by his late resurgence in 2021 in the bullpen when he posted a 2.84 ERA through 11 games and 12.2 innings, striking out 20 batters while holding opponents to a .208 average. He was a bit wild at times, allowing seven walks during that timespan, but he was effective in the later innings when the Jays needed a hard-throwing relief arm.
Fast forward to today and the overall picture of where Pearson fits in on the active roster gets pretty murky. There haven’t been any discussions this offseason on where the club plans to use Pearson next year, whether it be in the rotation (AAA) or a potential bullpen arm. All the prospective outlooks and predictions for the 2023 roster don’t have him fitting in either spot but a recent assignment to the Dominican Winter League these past couple of months produced impressive results. The right-hander made 12 relief appearances and didn’t allow a single earned run while racking up a 12.0 K/9 and a 0.750 WHIP through 12.0 innings and was able to hit the high-90s with his fastball.
While he could be used as a full-time bullpen arm next year, considering the Blue Jays lack depth when it comes to starting pitching and the overall long-term goal of Pearson’s role with the organization, I believe the club should use him in a hybrid role next season that sees the best of both worlds. 
Ultimately, the Blue Jays will likely have him starting in AAA given the current rotation and bullpen pictures unless some major injuries pop up shortly regardless of his role/position. While he logged some innings in the Dominican this winter as a reliever, I argue that having him return to the rotation to begin next season might be a step in the right direction compared to having him move to the Bisons’ bullpen to start the year.

Using Pearson in a hybrid role in 2023…

For this idea, I picture the Blue Jays having Pearson coming into Spring Training and going 2.0 – 3.0 innings and getting some reps under his belt after missing most of last season. Once Spring Training is over, the organization would then have Pearson head to AAA Buffalo where he would be starting games and continuing to get some prolonged innings under him, likely maxing out at 60-80 pitches and going no more than 4.0-5.0 innings to not overdo the workload and gradually get back into going deeper into games.
Fast forward to later in the season (let’s say the midway point), and that’s when I would consider moving Pearson to the bullpen. Few reasons for this:
  1. Innings/pitch limit to keep him healthy for the long term and not go too hard after missing a large portion of the 2021 and 2022 seasons
  2. Potential injuries to the active roster bullpen through the midway point of the year could see the Jays use Pearson at the big league level in a less stressful middle relief role if they so desire or in shorter bursts at the back end because of his high velocity
  3. With the emergence of internal options like Yosver Zulueta and Hayden Juenger, if injuries to the bullpen occur early in the year, a combination of these two players could be utilized and allow Pearson to continue getting reps as a starter, which bodes well considering I still believe he has the frame and makeup to be a starter at the big league level

The Pearson bullpen perspective… 

To play my own devil’s advocate, having Pearson in the bullpen for the full 2023 season also does make sense compared to the hybrid theory I mentioned earlier, especially if the Blue Jays are looking to use his velocity later in the season in the big leagues.
I think regardless of the role he takes on to begin the year will still see him sent down in AAA but it’s easy to see why the Jays could value him in the bullpen for a full season, especially if they are trying to reign in the workload with their former top prospect after a marred recent injury history. The Jays also have a majority of their rotation locked up for the considerable future over the next three years and top prospect Ricky Tiedeman could be ready to go in late 2023 as well, which might force Pearson to move to the bullpen anyway if he wants to see MLB action barring a long-term injury to one of the core starters.
My main argument against the full-time bullpen move is that I still think the long-term goal for Pearson is to have him starting games, whether that be in 2023 or 2024. I understand the injury risk is heightened with the increased workload of a starter compared to being in the bullpen but the hope would be slow and steady out of the gate (especially after some innings in Spring Training) and then picking it up a month/two months into the season so the feel for starting becomes more apparent (again, long term goals) will right the ship after a disappointing 2022 season. 
Then by the midway point of the season, to ease any workload or injury concerns, the move to the bullpen not only has pitch/inning limits in mind but also could support a move to the big league level if a high-velocity arm is needed, which could be useful when looking at the current bullpen heading into 2023 being strong but only a few players hitting the upper 90s. 
This whole idea could be a moot point if Zulueta or Juenger are outperforming Pearson and are a clear choice for a promotion to the big leagues. I still have Pearson pencilled in to start games moving forward and I think having him start the year in the rotation bodes well for that long-term goal, even if Tiedeman passes him on the depth charts this season. It would also be easier to convert Pearson to a full-time bullpen arm from a starting pitcher compared to the opposite and as I mentioned earlier, the Blue Jays don’t necessarily have the most depth in AAA when it comes to starting pitchers so Pearson being in the mix could be helpful. Also, if the Blue Jays want to explore a trade avenue and want to include Pearson as part of a trade package (let’s say at the deadline), I would think that he has more value as a starter than a dedicated bullpen arm. 

Staying healthy is a must this season…

While this idea is not foolproof and goes contrary to what will likely end up happening, one thing I will mention is that this is one season that Pearson needs to stay healthy and continue logging innings, not only to get back to the big league level but also to be viewed as a starter compared to a reliever moving forward. He still has two MiLB options at his disposal so we don’t need to sound the roster crunch alarms just yet but another year on the sidelines will only see him slide further down the depth charts and look for a role that already really isn’t there for him unless the active roster gets bit by the injury bug.
We shall have to wait and see how the Blue Jays will use Nate Pearson in 2023 and where he ends the season as well, whether it be in the minors compared to the Majors and whether he is in the rotation versus the bullpen. I think a hybrid role approach with starting games and finishing in the bullpen is the best of both worlds although I wouldn’t be surprised if he is a full-time bullpen arm come March as well.


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