Alek Manoah was the presumptive ace of the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff. The big right-hander had become one of the faces of the young, talented Blue Jays roster and appeared to be trending towards turning into one of the top pitchers in all of baseball last season.
Less than one year later, just two full months into the 2023 Major League Baseball season, things could not be any more different for the former Mountaineer. At this time last year, Manoah sported a 7-1 record and 1.81 ERA, and was putting up historic numbers. Fast forward to now, and Manoah is 1-7 with an earned run average of 6.36, leads the majors in walks, and is no longer on Toronto’s big league roster.
He was optioned to the Florida Complex League earlier this week, following the worst start of his major league career. Monday’s start was the latest in a shocking nosedive in production for a pitcher whose budding career was trending the opposite way not that long ago.
“It’s not a knee-jerk reaction,” Toronto manager John Schneider said earlier this week. “Like I’ve been saying all along, we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help him get better, and we feel like that’s the proper first, initial step.”
With a move like this, there are many questions. A few are: Why did this happen? What’s next for Manoah? When will he return to the MLB?
The why is Manoah’s performance this season, and what those within the organization have seen on a day-to-day basis since Spring Training got underway back in February.
As for what’s next, and when will he return, here is what reporters with knowledge of the situation are saying.
“Once he goes through some physical testing, mechanical testing – and this is part of the reason he’s down in Florida, is because they have their big player development complex down there,” Sportsnet reporter Ben Nicholson-Smith said on Sportsnet’s The JD Bunkis Podcast. “They’ll work really closely just to get a sense of where Manoah is physically and mechanically.”
Nicholson-Smith added that one of the benefits of Manoah going down to Florida is putting him in low-stress situations while he figures things out. Video rarely comes out of the FCL, though box scores of his performances could be made available.
MLB.com’s Keegan Matheson reported Tuesday that a clean bullpen session is all the Blue Jays will want to see out of Manoah early on in this process. Throwing in the bullpen and in Toronto’s pitching lab will be the first steps in Manoah’s road to returning to the majors.
ESPN’s Buster Olney noted in a recent episode of the Baseball Tonight Podcast, that this somewhat unprecedented “mental break” is necessary to get Manoah right again.
“It’s got to be working together with him right? That’s the big thing. It’s stark how he’s fallen off,” added Cubs and ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast Boog Sciambi. “I certainly hope that he’s able to reclaim the All-Star form that we saw.”
Manoah needs a reset in multiple areas of his game. Those who report on the Blue Jays day-to-day have noted a difference in his pitching mechanics from last season. Many around the sport have also speculated how much Major League Baseball’s implementation of the pitch clock has led to some of Manoah’s struggles. The pitcher’s physical stature of the former first-round pick, listed 25 pounds heavier this season compared to last, is another area of concern for the organization.
“Everything is on the table. I think all of those aspects,” said Nicholson-Smith. “If you’re looking to get the best hitters in the world out consistently, and do it in October when the stakes are highest, I think that all of those aspects are areas to look at. I don’t get the impression that the Jays think there is one single issue here that is easily identifiable.”
With that many issues, and potentially more, to work through, this is not expected to be a quick assignment for Manoah. Nicholson-Smith stated he foresees Manoah being in Florida for no less “than a couple weeks,” but also noted he would not be surprised to see the former West Virginia ace performing in Triple-A by the end of the month.
There is also concern that the length of Manoah’s demotion could impact his future earning abilities. By being sent all the way down to the Florida Complex League, the big right-hander is not accruing MLB service time. That can impact his Super Two status and delay when he is arbitration eligible. It can also push back when Manoah is initially eligible to become a free agent and potentially put him further away from his big payday if and when he returns to form.
Ultimately, Manoah will determine when he returns to the big league roster. Showing better command, understanding of how to work within the limits of the pitch clock, and improved velocity are some of the things he’ll need to show Toronto evaluators and decision-makers.
Despite his performance this year and the number of roadblocks that seem to be in his way, there is still plenty of belief that Manoah will return to being the pitcher he was last season.
“All of those mental pressures that I talked about are very real. But, I just think he’s strong. Like he is mentally strong and that he will find his way out of that part of it,” Bunkis said. “Once he starts to see results, the confidence with a guy like him is never going to go away. I think that we will see Alek Manoah again, you know, carry himself the way Alek Manoah has here, which is the big, barking guy who is backing up his teammates and talking.”