Nate Pearson faces turning point year in 2022

LAKELAND, Fla. — The next 12 months might define the trajectory of Nate Pearson’s career.

Starter or reliever? Consistently dominating or flashing and frustrating?

There are so many ways things could go for the big Toronto Blue Jays righty.

If you ask Pearson, the 25-year-old fully believes his long-term future resides in the rotation, and right now the organization is holding out hope that’s the case, too.

“I think I’ve always been a starting pitcher, it’s all I’ve done since I got to pro ball,” Pearson said Monday after his spring debut against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland. “Obviously, I went to the ‘pen last year, but I still have starter’s stuff. I have four pitches and guys in the bullpen usually have two pitches. It’s kind of just focusing on the whole arsenal and just go from there.”

There are many variables at play for Pearson heading into 2022.

Now healthy after sports hernia surgery last year, there’s going to be some sort of innings limit in play, but that’s well down the road and the Jays will be happy if he hits it simply because that means he’s held up physically.

“You’ve gotta be careful of the innings when you look at him and you look at his development so I think some kind of shorter role at times might be good for him early on,” Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, said after keeping a close eye on Pearson’s outing Monday. “Right now, we’re planning on stretching him out and keeping him as a starter, but that bulk role is interesting this year to kind of control his innings and be able to utilize him at the major-league level.

“Winning games is important and if he’s one of the best arms, we’re going to consider all our alternatives.”

Getting around 100 quality innings out of Pearson in a variety of roles would not only help them win games this season, it also sets things up for the Jays to send him into next winter with the plan to stretch out and compete for a rotation spot once again in 2023.

That might be the ideal scenario for everyone involved.

“I definitely think it’s temporary,” Pearson said of the scenario where he spends most of his season in the big league bullpen. “Obviously we’ve got the rotation set up and a good five-man rotation and we’ll see what they want to do. Whether I’m in the ‘pen or as a long relief guy, one-to-two inning guy, I’ll be ready to compete.

“You’ve just got to focus on what the task is. Right now, I’m building up as a starter so I’ve got to have that starter’s mentality. If I end up in the bullpen, then I become a bullpen guy, but you’ve got to have the same mentality and just go out there and attack hitters and have fun while doing it.”

No matter the role, that means Pearson needs to dial in the fastball command and stay on the mound for the entire season.

The hope is Pearson can play a big role out of the bullpen this year, with an eye on returning to the rotation a year from now with some innings under his belt.

There’s also a chance he begins in a multi-inning role and an injury or two forces a return to the rotation if he’s pitching well.

Did I mention there are so many ways things can go?

Walker has a long list of objectives when it comes to getting Pearson’s career back on track.

“Getting him back to the Nate Pearson prior to some injuries is our goal, where we see the velocity and we see the consistent action in the breaking balls, the slider and the curveball — I thought he used his breaking stuff really good today — and get out of predictable counts where he’s just pumping heaters in 2-0, 2-1 counts,” Walker explained. “I think we’re trying to make him a little bit more unpredictable as a pitcher and utilize the strike zone better and get more consistency out of his delivery.”

Consistency comes with reps and Pearson simply hasn’t pitched enough to improve.

Since the end of the 2019 season when he threw a career-high 101.2 frames, Pearson has only logged 63.2 total innings.

Thirty-three in the majors, and another 30.2 at Triple-A last season.

It hasn’t been easy for the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder, who topped out at 99.2 mph on Monday and looked fairly sharp in his two innings against the Tigers.

“It definitely got hard there at times but I just feel like that’s the nature of the game,” Pearson said. “You’re going to have injuries, you’re going to have ups and downs. I feel like I had some downs, but I think I’m on my way up now. I’m thankful for everything I’ve gone through because I’ve learned so much. It’s very humble and I’m just very happy to be standing here right now.”

He’s taken some lessons from it all, as well, and hopes his injury issues are behind him.

“Just that if I get knocked down I can get back up, no matter what I’m going through or what I’m facing there’s light at the end of the tunnel always,” Pearson said. “I’m just thankful to be healthy and have some fun out there today in Lakeland.”

Pearson is going to play a vital role for the Jays in 2022.

Just nobody has any idea what it is yet.

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