Blue Jays right-hander Alek Manoah has twice been optioned down to the minors this season, the most recent coming on August 11, over a month ago. However, Manoah hasn’t pitched in an official capacity in that past month, with various reports providing conflicting details about what exactly has been going on in that time.
Back on August 22, not too long after Manoah was optioned, Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet reported that Manoah had stayed in Toronto as opposed to reporting to Triple-A Buffalo, with the team’s blessing. “We’re just trying to work through the right time to get him back rolling again,” manager John Schneider said. “So nothing really to report.” When asked who made that decision, Schneider replied “It’s kind of both of us working through it to figure out what’s just best for him to get back and be productive,” the manager said. “So yeah, a joint thing and just taking it day by day.”
The Jays have a five-man rotation of Kevin Gausman, José Berríos, Chris Bassitt, Yusei Kikuchi and Hyun Jin Ryu. On paper, Manoah could have been the sixth starter and been back up with the club in the event of an injury to those other five. But even in that report last month, Schneider seemed reluctant to firmly state that Manoah would be first in line for such a role.
A few days after that, Nicholson-Smith reported that Manoah had recently undergone a battery of medical tests, but nothing serious was found. He didn’t report to Buffalo right away in case a stint on the injured list was required, but once his health was confirmed, he was expected to report to Buffalo at that time to start building back up to game readiness.
On September 5, Nicholson-Smith relayed that Manoah had been placed on the temporarily inactive list by the Bisons, adding that Manoah was with the club but they wanted to utilize his roster spot as he built back up. But earlier this week, another report from Nicholson-Smith relayed that it was unlikely Manoah would pitch in another game this season, prioritizing rest and recovery for potential long-term benefits.
That report was addressed by Ben Wagner, radio play-by-play broadcaster of the Blue Jays and formerly with the Bisons. He appeared on the Blair and Barker show on Sportsnet this week, as relayed by Andrew Stoeten of The Batflip. “It’s my understanding that Alek Manoah hasn’t even pitched, even in a side session or a bullpen, since he’s been optioned back,” Wagner said. “And there was a lot going on between leadership of the Toronto Blue Jays, the people around Alek Manoah, about the decision to even option him back, and where he would go when he was optioned back.”
There has been no official statement on the matter from Manoah or his representatives, nor from the Jays. Schneider addressed the issue today on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM. “At the current time, he feels like he’s not ready to compete,” Schneider said. “But we’ve been working through every decision with him together as a group and respecting his requests along the way.”
Given the conflicting nature of these reports, it’s difficult to draw meaningful conclusions. If it’s true that Manoah and his reps aren’t happy about the demotions, it’s possible there’s a financial element at play. He came into this year with his service time at one year and 130 days, meaning he would have finished this season at 2.130 if he had been in the big leagues the whole time. Looking at recent Super Two cutoffs, Manoah would have had a decent chance at getting Super Two status and getting to go through arbitration four times instead of the standard three, thus greatly increasing his earning power.
Having been optioned multiple times this year, that will no longer be the case, but it would be hard to make the argument that the Jays were motivated by manipulating his service time in order to achieve that outcome. Manoah was allowed to make 19 starts this year and posted an earned run average of 5.87. His 19% strikeout rate, 14.2% walk rate and 37.7% ground ball rate are all well below league averages. Among pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched this year, Manoah’s ERA is worse than all but 11 of them. Adam Wainwright is the only hurler with a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Ryu began the season on the injured list, recovering from last year’s Tommy John surgery. As he neared his return and Manoah’s poor performance continued, Manoah was clearly the worst option of the group that the club had on hand. Each of Gausman, Berríos, Bassitt, Kikuchi and Ryu currently have an ERA of 3.83 or lower. With the Jays firmly in the playoff race, currently tied for the last Wild Card spot in the American League, optioning Manoah was perfectly defensible in terms of just putting the best team on the field in the name of competition.
Regardless of the feelings about how things have played out, it’s a less than ideal situation for the club, as they have been operating without an obvious sixth starter for the past month. Their five starters have stayed healthy all year apart from Ryu’s rehab time earlier in the season and it hasn’t been an issue, though that could have easily played out another way.
There’s also the long-term to consider, as Manoah is still under club control for another four seasons beyond this one. Ryu is an impending free agent but the other four starters are all under contract for next season. Pencilling Manoah into the fifth spot would have been a nice plan for the club but they may have less confidence about that now, strictly due to his performance but also perhaps due to the other factors. Keegan Matheson of MLB.com appeared on TSN OverDrive 1050 today, saying that “the relationship does not appear to be in a good place right now,” before highlighting that the Jays might have to think about adding starting pitching in the offseason if they don’t think they can rely on Manoah as their fifth starter next year.
Perhaps more information will come to light over time, but there’s a lot of uncertainty around the situation for now. Regardless of how it plays out going forward, it has been a shocking season for Manoah that no one could have predicted. He posted a 2.24 ERA in his 31 starts last year, finishing third in American League Cy Young voting behind Justin Verlander and Dylan Cease. But his performance has dipped to the point that he was one of the least effective pitchers in baseball this year and is now perhaps one of the least predictable players going forward.