A guy (namely, me) sat in the press box at Vancouver’s venerable Nat Bailey stadium one late August afternoon, settling in to watch Nate Pearson work during the C’s final home game of the 2017 season before the Northwest League Playoffs (which Vancouver would ultimately win, their four in seven seasons as a Blue Jays affiliate).
Up to that point, the second of the Blue Jays first two round draft picks two months before had been absolutely dominant in 7 innings-limited starts. In 17 innings, Pearson had allowed 6 base runners, while he fanned 21. Not a runner had made it past second base against Pearson.
Pearson was – for him – hit uncharacteristically hard by the Cubs’ Boise farm club over three innings (he departed after failing to retire a batter in the 4th), and gave up his first runs of the season. After hitting 99 on the radar gun in the first inning, he was knocked around for a single and a double – the first extra base hit he had surrendered – in the 2nd. The latter came on a pitch that clocked in at 91, and I asked aloud in the press box if that was his curve. Turns out it was his change, a pitch very much in progress at that point, an offering that didn’t have a lot of downward movement on it, making the Boise hitters eyes get as big as saucers as they saw some pitches they could actually track after trying to catch up to Big Nate’s fastball. But with the organization insistent (as they are with all of their Pitchers) that he throw a prescribed number of change ups in his outings, Pearson showed that at least that pitch had a long way to go.
Now comes word, after a dominant (yet innings limited) spring, via MLB Radio, that Pearson has been working on his change during the pandemic shutdown. “The results will speak for themselves,” Pearson said of the work he had put in on his secondaries over the past three months. He claims he’s sharpened his curve ball, a pitch that had more shape than his slider, and was easier to pick up as a result, and has improved his change, which showed promise in March. His bread-and-butter will always be his fastball and his slider, which comes from the same arm slot and with the same arm action as Pearson’s heater, and while those two are such plus pitches that they will buy his curve and change some development time, an upgrade in either of those other offspeed pitches would push him into elite territory. If his change has truly gained movement, Pearson will be a tough guy to square up with his already nasty stuff.
The question, of course, is whether the Blue Jays feel that Pearson is worth burning a year of service time in which Toronto will be facing tough competition. Yes, there is plenty of optimism with a young core that will probably take another step forward, but with the Blue Jays slated to play 10 games against each of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, as well as 10 against each NL East team – 4 of whom finished above .500 last season – Toronto faces a huge challenge if this truncated, potential Hindenburg of a season ever gets underway. There might be a temptation among the Blue Jays braintrust to hold Pearson back this season in order to maximize his time in a Toronto uniform.
But all the indications are that Pearson is ready for prime time. He certainly has little to gain, development-wise, from playing in an advanced form of Extended Spring Training with the other top prospects in the 60-man player pool. Almost three years ago, Pearson was mostly a two-pitch Pitcher. If he now has one or two more off speed weapons in his arsenal, he’s ready to take his place in the front of the Toronto rotation. The Blue Jays still may be a season away from being competitive, but the future is now.