Blue Jays right-hander Nate Pearson was recently placed back on the minor league injured list due to a groin strain — his second IL placement for the injury in 2021. It appears there’s some difficulty in ascertaining the root of the issue, as Jays CEO Mark Shapiro said today on Sportsnet 590 that Pearson is headed for what will be a fourth opinion on the injury (Twitter link via Sportsnet’s Arash Madani).
Pearson, 24, has been one of the prized prospects in the the organization for the past four years. Selected with the No. 28 pick back in 2017, Pearson dominated in 2019 to the point that he was not only considered the Blue Jays’ best pitching prospect, but one of the premier pitching prospects in all of baseball. Baseball America, MLB.com and FanGraphs all listed Pearson as one of the sport’s top ten minor leaguers prior to the 2020 campaign, and he garnered similar fanfare heading into 2021.
Pearson made his big league debut in 2020, firing five shutout innings against the Nationals and flashing a triple-digit heater which he complemented with a plus slider (and less-utilized changeups and curves). Elbow tightness sent him to the injured list just a few starts later, however, and Pearson wound up pitching just 18 innings during his debut campaign as the Jays took a cautious approach with their prized young righty.
Injuries have been a persistent source of frustration for Pearson, though some of his troubles have been rather fluky in nature. He suffered a fractured forearm in his first minor league start of the 2018 season when he was hit by a comeback liner, only to later sustain an oblique strain while rehabbing that injury. That pair of issues limited him to just 1 2/3 innings that season, and it’s now looking as though another set of injuries will significantly hamper his workload in 2021. Pearson has tallied just 27 innings overall so far in 2021.
Another injury-marred season is surely disheartening for Pearson, and it’s also likely thrown a bit of a wrench into the Blue Jays’ expectations. Pearson likely would’ve been on some type of innings limit in 2021, but he still reported to camp seen as an MLB-ready option in the rotation.
Pearson’s injuries and the early struggles of Tanner Roark — which prompted the right-hander’s release — have left the Jays with a rotation that probably doesn’t look quite like they envisioned but has still been solid. Steven Matz is currently out after testing positive for Covid-19, but he’s given the Jays 69 2/3 innings of 4.26 ERA ball. Fellow southpaw Robbie Ray is enjoying an excellent rebound campaign on a one-year deal, while righty Ross Stripling has stepped up as a dependable option. The Jays’ second-ranked pitching prospect, Alek Manoah, has been quite good in three of his five outings since his own MLB debut a month ago.
Combined with top starter Hyun Jin Ryu, the quartet of Matz, Ray, Stripling and Manoah gives the Jays a solid enough starting five for the time being. That said, as is the case with Pearson, Manoah is surely someone whose workload the Blue Jays will want to monitor. Matz threw just 30 2/3 innings last season, while Stripling (49 1/3) and Ray (51 2/3) also had fairly light workloads even by 2020 standards.
The Jays have some depth at the moment. Anthony Kay is starting tonight’s game, and down in Triple-A, the trio of Jacob Waguespack, T.J. Zeuch and Nick Allgeyer has thrown reasonably well. But the Blue Jays are lacking veteran arms with an established track record, making rotation help a logical target as the trade deadline approaches. GM Ross Atkins has already acknowledged a desire to add bullpen help and perhaps a left-handed bat, but the newfound uncertainty surrounding Pearson likely enhances the need for some innings in the rotation as well.