Could Nate Pearson, the Jays’ recent signing, follow the same unconventional path to the major leagues as a previous Florida draftee?
The year was 2010.
The Chicago White Sox were leading the AL Central with a 49-38 record at the break. They had just drafted 13th overall in the annual amateur draft and had taken a skinny, just-turned-21 starting pitcher from Florida Gulf Coast University (the Jays, picking 11th, had taken Deck McGuire) . Conventional wisdom would have been to have the kid pitch a few games in the low minors, and perhaps some winter ball. But the Sox believed that they needed bullpen help, and the Twins were coming up fast. So Chicago did the unconventional, and brought the kid up directly to the major league bullpen.
Of course it helped that the kid had a few things going for him. He had a 90-92mph fastball with good movement, a slider that was described as below-average but with potential to improve, and a solid changeup. He also had crazy-good control, with a college strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 10:1. And perhaps most important of all, he had a great mound presence – he did not get rattled.
Chris Sale pitched 23 innings for the Sox in the second half of 2010, with a 1.93 ERA and 12.34 strikeouts per nine innings, using almost exclusively his 96 mph fastball and slider. He pitched out of the bullpen again in 2011, with a 2.79 ERA over 71 innings, before being promoted to the rotation in 2012. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Toronto Blue Jays
Which brings us to 2017.
The Blue Jays are 1.5 games out of a wild card spot on June 12th, when they picked a soon-to-turn-21 fireballer named Nate Pearson with the 28th overall pick in the amateur draft. Pearson is remarkable in that his 100+ mph fastball projects as a 70 on the 20-80 scale (his slider projects as 50, which is MLB average). Pearson also has unusually good control, with a K:BB ratio over 5 (not otherworldly Sale good, but pretty impressive), consistent mechanics, and appears to have the right mindset to handle a big-league role.
Some analysts have suggested that Pearson could be fast-tracked to the majors as a two-pitch reliever, perhaps as soon as 2018. But could he help the Jays even sooner?
What if it were true that the Jays had a pre-draft “agreement” with Nate, and as a result he is a quick sign? He has only pitched 81 innings so far this year. Send him to the minors for a month to focus on relieving as a fastball/slider power arm, then bring him up to the big league bullpen after the all-star break? Some writers have expressed concern about the Jays using a “finesse bullpen“, where so many other teams are building their bullpens around high-velocity arms like an Aroldis Chapman / Ken Giles / Dellin Betances. Would a 100 mph Nate, however raw, fit that hole in the Jays 2017 pen?
This idea of course leads into the age-old argument of whether it helps or hurts a young starting pitcher to start his MLB career in the bullpen. This approach used to be common (Jimmy Key, David Wells, Pat Hentgen) , then went out of fashion, and recently has been making a comeback (Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini). Personally, I like the idea.
The jump to the bigs is difficult at many levels, not just on the field. Giving a young man time to adjust to the media, the lifestyle, and a major league clubhouse while in a (relatively) lower-pressure bullpen role, and then moving him to the rotation from a position of strength, makes a lot of sense to me. Plus, I am a big fan of Pete Walker and of Russell Martin – if anyone in the Jays organization can help Nate to develop his secondary pitches and learn to use them in-game, it is those two.
The bottom line
Will we see the TermiNATEor (sorry) in 2017? Probably not. But it is fun to think about, and it behooves the Jays to at least have the conversation.