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Steve Phillips

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For Toronto Blue Jays fans clamouring for the team to promote some quality pitching prospects to go along with a plethora of position player prospects, Nate Pearson has declared: ‘Here I come.’

Pearson is a 23-year-old right-hander who can throw over 100 mph. The Jays recently promoted the six-foot-six, 245-pounder to the Buffalo Bisons where he announced his arrival in robust fashion – throwing seven shutout innings in his Triple-A debut.

The 2017 first-round pick is ranked as the Jays’ No. 2 prospect behind rookie shortstop Bo Bichette. Since it’s safe to say that Bichette is in the majors to stay, let’s elevate Pearson to the No. 1 spot in the Jays’ farm system.

Drafted in 2017, Pearson missed most of last season after getting hit with a comebacker that broke his arm. Despite being on a fast-track this year and moving up quickly – from Class A-Dunedin to Double-A New Hampshire and now to Buffalo in 2019 – it doesn’t mean he’s ready for the major leagues. He has only accumulated 112 innings worth of work in the minor leagues, 90 of which have come this year. Although he certainly has a great arm, he also has a lot of learning to do. 

Pearson may just have the best arm the Blue Jays organization has ever had. Nobody else has thrown 104-mph pitches like he did in the Arizona Fall League last year. He also has a wipeout slider, a 12-to-6 curve ball and a feel for a change-up. But he is still figuring out how and when to use his stuff. He is learning to be a pitcher and not just a thrower. 

Minor league innings allow opportunities for pitchers to learn how to deal with adversity during games. Baseball is a game of adjustments and adaptation. Pearson needs to learn what to do when he can’t command his fastball on a given day. He needs to learn how to get hitters off of his fastball when he can’t throw his slider where he wants it to land. He needs to learn how to attack left-handers and right-handers. He needs to learn how to read hitter stances and swings. He needs to learn how to manage a game when he just doesn’t have his best stuff. He needs reps holding runners and fielding his position at the faster pace of Triple-A. 

The Jays are in no rush – they need to manage Pearson’s innings this season so as not to overtax his arm since he threw very little in 2018. The club’s rebuilding process is moving forward but it won’t be over by next year. Pearson has the stuff to be a No. 1 starter, an ace. They need to nurture him. 

I would not promote Pearson to the major leagues this season, nor would he be on the team’s Opening Day roster in 2020. He’s the type of player that the Jays need to protect, namely his service time so they can maximize their return on investment. I wouldn’t be surprised if they keep him in Buffalo next year for the first month or so of the season. Let him learn, grow and develop a bit more before it becomes all about winning at the major league level. 

If the rebuilding process provides the first four batters in the lineup (Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) and an ace at the front of the rotation (Pearson), it will be a tremendous success. It will mean that the Jays will be very cost-efficient, allowing them to spend more money on other pieces around the young core of the roster. 

Jays using ‘opener’ strategy effectively

The Blue Jays have been implementing the use of the “opener” more as the season progresses. It’s not a philosophy that they necessarily desire to use as a long-term practice, but it is out of necessity. The trades of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, coupled with the injuries to Clayton Richard, Matt Shoemaker, Clay Buchholz and Ryan Borucki, have wiped out the starting pitching depth in the organization. 

What the Tampa Bay Rays have shown the rest of baseball is that the best way to nurse subpar starters through the game is to do it by using the opener. This allows a relief pitcher who matches up well against the top of an opponent’s lineup to open the game, and then have the team back him up with a pitcher who can give some length. The second pitcher in the game is usually a guy who isn’t overpowering and who needs to mix up his pitches to induce bad contact. Letting such a pitcher face a weaker part of the lineup when first entering the game can build confidence and momentum for when he does have to face the top of the order. 

In an ideal world, clubs want five quality starting pitchers. Smaller market teams can’t always afford starting pitchers in the free agent market so the opener strategy allows them to work around their limitations and maximize their talent. Larger market teams that are competing for the playoffs may use the opener on occasion to work around underperformance, injury or a suspension, but it is not a common practice otherwise. 

Teams that have successfully used the opener have very good organizational pitching depth and roster flexibility to move pitchers up and down from the majors to the minors. The Jays aren’t quite at that point yet. 

Trout keeps getting better; Angels? Not so much

The best player in baseball keeps getting better. Just when you think that Mike Trout has reached his peak, he takes his game to another level, hitting his career-high 42nd homer on Tuesday night. He’s on pace for more than 50 homers this year.

His career WAR (72.5) recently passed Derek Jeter’s (72.4). Jeter played for 20 seasons and appeared in 2,747 games. Trout has played less than nine seasons and had appeared in 1,186 games. Jeter will be a first ballot Hall of Famer and maybe the second-ever unanimous selection. Remarkably, Trout has lapped Jeter in his career already and he is just 28 years old.

But as good as Trout is, baseball is a team game. One player can’t turn around a franchise. It’s not the NBA, where LeBron James can single-handedly convert a franchise like he did in Cleveland. It’s not the NFL, where a great quarterback can completely change the fortunes of a team. 

The Angels have tried to add other hitters around Trout over the years, but they never seem to add the necessary pitching. They can put as many hitters in the lineup as they want. They can even be a very good defensive team. Unless they dramatically improve the pitching, they aren’t going to win no matter what Mike Trout does at the plate.

The Angels have had an ERA in the top five in the AL only once in the last nine seasons (2011-Trout’s first season) and have only had a sub-4.00 ERA three times in those nine years. This year the Angels have a 5.01 ERA. 

Shohei Ohtani may become the ace they have needed when he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but they are going to need much more than just his health and development, too. 

The Angels are in a large market and need to spend money to justify the expenditure on Trout. Albert Pujols has had a great career and is a phenomenal person, but his contract is a drag on their ability to add other significant free agents as he is scheduled to make $59 million over the next two seasons and is a shell of the player he once was. Until they invest in pitching, they won’t win. 

SPITTING SEEDS

-Jays manager Charlie Montoyo did the right thing pulling Guerrero from the game on Saturday when the big slugger complained of pain in his knee. These games mean nothing in the scheme of things, so better to be cautious. They did an MRI and everything checked out fine and the young third baseman was back in the lineup by Tuesday. 

But the tweak that he felt provides another opportunity for the Jays to reinforce the importance of his lower half conditioning and flexibility. The Jays need to take advantage of the scare to further engage the young star in both his off-season and in-season programs. 

What young players don’t always realize is that as they get older, they have to do more each year to just get the same result. Any significant wear and tear on a player’s body in his younger years can take years off the backend of a career.

-Bichette’s two home runs against Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw on Tuesday added to the legend of the young shortstop. He’s one of only six players to homer twice in a game against the future Hall of Famer. He has set records for extra base hits to start a career.  He has slugged doubles at a record pace. He has gotten everyone’s attention in a way that many expected Guerrero to do. 

Here’s the good news: Guerrero will still be a better player in the long run than Bichette. Guerrero hasn’t had the same hot start to his career that Bichette has had, but all that means is that there will be some serious damage coming from the stout third baseman. Plus, Guerrero walks more than Bichette, who will swing at the first strike he sees while Guerrero is willing to take a strike, waiting for a better pitch to hit. Bichette swings at the 3-2 pitch if it’s close, while Guerrero will take the walk, even if it’s slightly out of the zone. 

Guerrero’s approach is more slump proof than Bichette’s because he is less prone to bad luck because a walk is always a walk, while a ball put in play is dependent on many different things for a positive outcome. They are both going to be great but in different ways. So is Biggio and Gurriel. But the best is still Vlad Jr.

-MLB players are already starting to beat the drum regarding the CBA. San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Jeff Samardjzia recently complained about service-time manipulation by teams and the negative impact it has on players. In addition to service-time manipulation, he wants the major leagues to change the rules about how many times players can be optioned to the minor leagues during a season. He believes teams move players on and off of the major league roster in order to limit service time for players. It is an interesting position considering that when one player is optioned to the minor leagues, another comes up to the major leagues, so someone is always accumulating service time. 

I find it more startling that a guy like Samardjzia, who has made over $100 million in his career while going just 78-101 with a 4.11 ERA over 10 seasons, would have complaints about the system. He signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Giants and has only pitched to a 31-40 record with a 4.14 ERA. I am sure the owners will be more than happy to trade roster manipulation or limiting options for the ability to convert guaranteed contracts to non-guaranteed deals when players underperform like he has in San Francisco. The players are not victims, despite their efforts to portray the situation as otherwise.

-After their game on Wednesday night against the Detroit Tigers, the Houston Astros banned a reporter from the Detroit Free Press from entering the clubhouse because ace Justin Verlander would not answer questions from members of the media if he was in attendance. It’s still unclear what beef the veteran starter has with the writer from his days playing for the Tigers in Detroit. But he certainly is holding on to some resentment.

It’s not uncommon for players to hold grudges against members of the media for things they have said or written about them. Sometimes they are even warranted. But it’s not appropriate for the team to ban access to the clubhouse for a member of the media who has a credential issued by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. This is not a Verlander issue, this is an Astros issue. The team has to manage its players. If Verlander didn’t want to speak to the writer, then he has two choices: only do one-on-one interviews with members of the media he is willing to speak with or don’t speak with any of them. The Astros should have told their star pitcher he has to make the choice but that banning someone from the clubhouse is not an option.