Alek Manoah and the Blue Jays call an important timeout
Opening Day starter optioned to minors
When Blue Jays spring training began four months ago, Alek Manoah was clearly The Man in a solid five-man rotation. The third-place finisher in ’22 AL Cy Young voting, his goal for this ‘23 season was to exorcise the one demon of playoff failure in Game 1 of the Wildcard Series vs. the M’s and to lead the Jays deep into October, hopefully with better results. But, the best laid plans…
Manoah’s current crisis of confidence and downward spiraling success, has painfully played itself out in front of the Blue Jays world, with nowhere to hide. Through 13 starts, it seems equal parts mental angst and physical failure, to the point that his mind has been clearly unfocused on the task at hand. Every five days, Jays’ media was able to witness this worrisome descent into discombobulation and despair. As callous and cynical as modern, mainstream media is reputed to be, it has been tough to watch.
Finally, on Monday, recording just one out vs. the Astros, Manoah’s lack of once every-five-day contribution became far too predictable and forced management’s hand. There was no solution other than removing him from the major-league firing line, but how? Triple-A Buffalo was the first choice of many on social media, but not the first choice of the Blue Jays.
So, hang on, before you say you knew it was coming, this is not your father’s minor-league demotion. Manoah will not be pitching every five days vs. old scrubs and young studs, at minor-league facilities in the International League, looking for the type of deceiving numbers that will get him back on the Rogers Centre mound. It’s far more of a 21st Century process than that.
Differences here from the fall and rise of Roy Halladay
And for those in the fanbase that point to the Roy Halladay precedent in Blue Jays history, thinking they can know from that experience what’s going to be best for Manoah, the talented righthander, whose rapid rise and feisty success early on shocked and amused the baseball world for two years, no, this is nothing like Doc.
In Halladay’s case he was optioned to the lowest levels of the full-season minor-league teams, a move that served to turn his career around, propelling him to the Hall-of-Fame. But prior to the demotion at age 23, he had already logged 567.1 minor-league innings in six pro seasons.
Compare that to Manoah’s wake-up call. He’s already been close enough to actually see the top of the mountain, even with working only 35.0 minor-league innings. Halladay hadn’t even established a base camp at the foot of success when his baseball aspirations were rocked.
With Manoah, there is pitching lab science and alternate site method to the madness.
What do you do with a problem like Manoah
While Halladay, famously, was assigned veteran pitching coach Mel Queen to remain at his side every step of the way in 2001, sticking with him as he rose through three levels of the farm on his career renaissance, Manoah will report to the Player Development Complex (PDC) in Dunedin, where his spiritual advisor is expected to be former major-league and Port Hope (ON) native Paul Quantrill. At the same time, his physical adjustments will be led by assistant major-league pitching coach David Howell, via video sent to Toronto’s coaches, by a squad of analysts using the PDC’s state-of-the-art pitching lab. Together they will help poke, prod and refine Manoah’s repertoire, exploring his apparent loss of fastball velocity, the diminished break on his once-fearsome slider and his confidence to “throw strikes here” not to “not throw a ball.”
It may well be that the bigger problem for the big Floridian has been mental. The last time he failed, it was part of the maturing process where he didn’t really care about being best. It was his first year at West Virginia as a Mountaineer and he was good, not great. He went to Cape Cod for the summer and realized in looking around against the best NCAA players how good he could and should be. He returned to WVU and raised his profile to be selected 11th overall in the 2019 draft. It had been an upward trending career path ... until now.
But the biggest difference between the Halladay and Manoah demotions is in how he will likely be used in what is technically filed with MLB as an assignment to the Florida Complex League, a less regulated short-season circuit composed of draft picks, younger players not assigned to full-season and some injured veterans from different levels completing their rehabs.
Manoah will not be in any formal rotation. He will pitch in controlled situations against other Jays farmhands, with every move and every pitch being parsed on video. He must move the needle before he may be assigned for a couple of Triple-A starts.
Manoah and the Jays have been down this alternate road before. Back in 2020 when COVID-19 cancelled the minor league season and every organization’s top prospects were sent to so-called “alternate sites” to hone their skills, the Jays came away realizing the value of controlled instruction over games. Manoah was one of those that attended and benefitted from the Jays’ site, located in Rochester. For that key developmental year, Alek never saw a real game at any level, but then went to spring training and impressed the major-league staff to the point he was recalled for good after three starts and 18.0 innings. He proved that he doesn’t need second-tier opposition in minor-league ballparks, with basic travel conditions in order to move forward to completing his mission of returning to the majors as soon as possible.
For inspiration, Manoah only need look back to October, the start of this stretch that has led to a career crossroads, a moment of innocence in a losing clubhouse at one of the lowest points of his career.
Manoah had just lost Game 1 of the Wild Card Series to the M’s. Having completed his post-game interview session, he was alone with his thoughts in the clubhouse. Disconsolate, he sat unmoving in front of his locker, leaning forward, head buried in his hands, elbows on knees.
The Game 2 starter, Kevin Gausman, was headed to the back door of the clubhouse, needing to pass by Manoah’s space. His three-year-old daughter Sadie let go of her father’s hand, walked quietly over to Manoah’s locker and wrapped her arms around his neck, a concerned, healing hug. It immediately brought him back to the present as the trace of a smile crept in.
In baseball, you can’t really succeed until you fail. Manoah had plenty of success, but now he needs to learn how he handles failure and emerge whole on the other side. The Jays have done the right thing to help Manoah reach that point.