The Blue Jays announced a series of roster moves today, the most notable of which is that right-hander Alek Manoah has been optioned to the Florida Complex League. The club also optioned right-hander Jay Jackson and infielder Ernie Clement. To fill those three roster spots, righty Chris Bassitt has been reinstated from the paternity list, infielder Santiago Espinal has been reinstated from the injured list and right-hander Bowden Francis has had his contract selected. To open a spot on the 40-man for Francis, righty Zach Thompson was designated for assignment.
The 2023 season has been a stunning fall from grace for Manoah, 25, who had previously been on a meteoric rise. The Jays selected him 11th overall in the 2019 draft and it didn’t take him long to make it up to the major leagues. He made six Low-A starts in his draft year, then the minor leagues were wiped out by the pandemic in 2020. In 2021, he was sent to Triple-A and allowed just a single earned run through three starts before getting the call to the majors.
It was an aggressive move given his lack of minor league innings but Manoah quickly justified it. He eventually posted a 3.22 ERA over 111 2/3 innings in that season, finishing eighth in American League Rookie of the Year voting. He took things to another level last year with a 2.24 ERA over 196 2/3 frames, striking out 22.9% of opponents against a 6.5% walk rate. He finished third in the AL Cy Young vote, trailing only Justin Verlander and Dylan Cease.
He seemed to be an ace in the making and was given the Opening Day nod for the Jays here in 2023. Unfortunately, just about everything has soured for him this year. His strikeout rate is down to 17% and his walk rate has more than doubled to 14.9%. His ERA on the year is 6.36, almost triple his earned run rate from last year. It’s been speculated for weeks as to whether some kind of action was necessary but he seemed to finally put the writing on the wall last night when he allowed six earned runs against the Astros while only recording a single out, forcing the bullpen to absorb 8 2/3 innings.
After that trouncing, manager John Schneider said that “everything is on the table” in how to move forward. It seems that wasn’t just bluster as the club will now send Manoah to their Florida Complex facilities to see if he can figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. The length of that process could potentially have implications for Manoah’s future earning power. He came into this season with one year and 30 days of MLB service time. A new “year” flips over at 172 days, so he’s already gone over the two-year mark, but this move makes it less likely he’ll qualify for Super Two status at season’s end.
Of course, that’s likely just a minor detail right now. In the grand scheme of things, the long-term trajectory that once seemed so straightforward suddenly seems incredibly murky. Both Manoah and the Blue Jays will undoubtedly be keenly focused on figuring out how to get him back to being a viable major leaguer, for this season and for the rest of his career.
In the meantime, the Jays will now have to patch over a hole in their rotation. Kevin Gausman, Bassitt, José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi should have the next four days spoken for but the Jays figure to require another starter by Saturday. It’s possible that Francis, 27, could be a factor there, either as a traditional starter or part of a bullpen game of some kind. Drafted by the Brewers in 2017, he came over to the Blue Jays alongside Trevor Richards in the 2021 deal that sent Rowdy Tellez to Milwaukee.
Between those two organizations, Francis posted a 3.93 ERA in the minors in 2021, split between Double-A and Triple-A. That got him a spot on Toronto’s 40-man roster in the winter to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. He struggled in 2022 and lost his roster spot, posting a 6.59 ERA in Triple-A, though he did make his major league debut with a scoreless outing that lasted two thirds of an inning.
Despite that rough year, he’s had some decent momentum since. He joined Criollos de Caguas in Puerto Rico for some time in winter ball, posting a 1.51 ERA in 35 2/3 innings there. He then had a 1.08 ERA in 13 Spring Training innings before heading to Triple-A Buffalo. He made a couple of starts before going on the minor league injured list but has been back in action for a couple of weeks now and has a 2.89 ERA in the minors so far this year. The Jays haven’t made any announcements about their future rotation plans, but it’s possible that it could be contingent on whether or not Francis is needed before Saturday. With the bullpen fairly taxed after Manoah’s start last night, he could be pushed into action sooner if another starter struggles this week.
One player who apparently won’t be an option to join the rotation is Thompson. He came over to the Blue Jays from the Pirates in an offseason trade but has a 6.89 ERA through 11 Triple-A starts on the year so far. His 8.8% walk rate is fairly average but his 14.4% strikeout rate is well below. He seemed to break out as a viable big league pitcher with the Marlins in 2021, posting a 3.24 ERA in 75 innings that year. But he struggled in 2022 after getting traded to the Pirates, registering a 5.18 ERA last year.
The Jays will now have one week to trade Thompson or pass him through waivers. His poor results both last year and this year will obviously temper interest, but he has past major league success and a full slate of options. With many teams around the league dealing with injuries and in need of pitching depth, he could still find some interest. If he were to clear waivers, he would not have the right to elect free agency since he doesn’t have three years of service time or a previous career outright.