Who Could Fill in for Alek Manoah in the Blue Jays Rotation?

Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah may not be ready for Opening Day, meaning the club will need to consider another starter to take his place.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 10, 2023: Alek Manoah #6 of the Toronto Blue Jays throws a pitch during the fourth inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field on August 10, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

Last season, the Toronto Blue Jays boasted one of Major League Baseball’s top rotations. The club used just eight pitchers to start games and was led by a core group of four veterans – Kevin Gausman, José Berríos, Yusei Kikuchi, and Chris Bassitt.

This quartet made 30+ starts each for the Blue Jays and collectively, the rotation arms ranked second in strikeouts (922), third in ERA (3.85), and fifth in innings pitched (894 2/3) while having some of these stats impacted by inconsistency in the fifth rotation spot.

Alek Manoah was the Opening Day starter and the fifth rotation member to begin the year although the 6-foot-6 right-hander struggled to find his 2022 Cy Young finalist form on the mound.

The Florida product posted a 5.87 ERA through 19 starts and struggled mightily with his command, eventually finding himself being optioned to the minors on two separate occasions.

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The first instance was a month-long midseason drop to the Florida Complex League where he worked in the organization’s pitching lab at the newly renovated Player Development Complex.

The second was towards the end of the season when Manoah was optioned mid-August to triple-A and spent the rest of the campaign off the mound, instead receiving injections in his arm, ending his season.

Rotation options if Alek Manoah is not ready for Opening Day

Entering the 2024 season, Manoah was not guaranteed a spot in the Blue Jays rotation but had a leg up on the competition in the eyes of the front office. That is until the right-hander started experiencing some shoulder soreness in early March which has him limited to just 1 2/3 innings so far this spring. While imagining confirmed no further structural damage, Manoah is behind the rest of the group when it comes to getting ready for the long haul of the regular season.

Considering Opening Day for the Blue Jays is just roughly two and a half weeks away, the coaching staff may need to consider another option if the former first-round pick either needs to start the year on the IL or head down in Triple-A to get some innings under his belt.

First Option: Bowden Francis

Acquired by the Blue Jays back in 2021, right-hander Bowden Francis has set himself up nicely to be a regular contributor at the big league level this season.

The biggest question mark coming into this campaign was how the Jays would utilize the 27-year-old, as Francis has worked in both a starting and relief capacity throughout his professional career.

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In the Minors, he has 107 starts on his resume while the Blue Jays have strictly used him in a relief role at the big-league level. Francis rode the options bus for the team last year and put up solid numbers, pitching to a 1.73 ERA through 36 1/3 innings while authoring a 8.7 K/9, a 2.0 BB/9 and a 0.826 WHIP in 20 appearances.

So far this spring, he continues to impress on the diamond, as he has made three appearances (two starts) for the Blue Jays. Through eight innings, the Florida product has allowed three earned runs and just two walks while striking out ten batters, authoring a 3.38 ERA.

The Jays appear to have Francis being stretched out as a starter this spring, which could be a reserve move should Manoah not be ready to go to start the year. Francis is sitting between 90-95 MPH with his fastball and has also added a splitter to his repertoire this winter, a solid offering to go along with his mid-70s curveball and slider offerings.

While there is some time between now and Opening Day for changes to take effect, if Francis keeps pounding the strike zone and generating swings and misses on his offerings, he will likely get the Blue Jays’ last rotation spot to start the year over Manoah.

Second Option: Mitch White

Right-hander Mitch White’s tenure with the Blue Jays has been a rollercoaster of results. He was acquired at the 2022 trade deadline to give some additional depth in the rotation with Berríos and Kikuchi struggling and the California product has struggled to provide consistency when called up to the active roster.

Last year, White began the season on the IL and the Jays strictly used him out of the bullpen when healthy, with the 6-foot-3 making 10 relief appearances on the season. White would amass a 7.11 ERA through 12 2/3 innings while posting an elevated 5.0 BB/9 to go along with a 9.2 K/9.

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The struggling hurler would be DFA’d in late July and passed through waivers unclaimed, finishing the season in Triple-A. His time in Buffalo would end on a high note, posting a 1.69 ERA through four starts in September. White allowed just four earned runs through 21 1/3 innings of work while holding batters to a .160 average, striking out 30.

White has shown glimpses of being a dependable arm and given his ability to pitch in both the rotation and bullpen, it appears the Blue Jays are willing to give him a chance to work multiple innings his spring.

He has started just one game for the club this spring through four outings and nine innings, allowing five earned runs (including a two-run home run on an out-of-the-zone pitch on Oneil Cruz) while walking seven batters compared to four strikeouts. While the strikeout totals are a bit down, White has shown off an impressive increase in velocity, sitting in the upper 90s with his fastball.

The 29-year-old is the only Jays pitcher in camp out of MiLB options and it will be interesting to see where the club decides to use him this season (if at all). He was added to the 40-man roster in the early offseason and while some of his underlying metrics have been trending well, he has struggled with his command at times and given up some hard contact as well, putting himself in tough situations.

White is an option to be considered for the rotation and could be the fifth starter amongst the group although a move to the bullpen is more likely in the cards if the Jays don’t want to expose him to waivers.

Francis has put up the better numbers this spring and likely has an edge for a move to the rotation over his teammate, While White is out of options, the Jays haven’t been afraid to cut him loose before. It will also likely depend on what the front office plans to do with the third option listed below, as this pitcher could alter the rest of the bullpen scenario as well and potentially send White off the 40-man when all is said and done.

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Third Option: Yariel Rodríguez

The Blue Jays’ largest offseason signing in terms of years and guaranteed salary, Cuban right-hander Yariel Rodríguez is an interesting name to follow in spring training given his recent history.

After spending over six seasons in the Cuban Nationale Series, Rodríguez took his talents overseas to the Nippon Baseball League in Japan, pitching for the Chunichi Dragons. The 2022 season was his best on record, authoring a 1.15 ERA through 56 relief outings. Although the Dragons used him out of the bullpen for the majority of his time in Japan, the 27-year-old can also start games if needed, as evidenced by how he pitched for Team Cuba at the 2023 World Baseball Classic (2.45 ERA through 7 1/3 innings with ten strikeouts through two starts).

Following the tournament, Rodríguez stayed in the Dominican Republic and continued to train as he was seeking an opportunity stateside rather than returning to Japan. The Dragons eventually terminated his contract and became a free agent in early November. He later inked a five-year deal with the Blue Jays worth $32 million. He has numerous incentives and escalators that can push the contract to be even more while also holding a player option worth $6 million for the 2028 season. Should he decline, the Blue Jays have a $10 million club option at their disposal.

The intrigue surrounding the right-hander is at an all-time high, as not much is known about the Cuban pitcher at this time outside of those who saw him pitch in Japan and the few innings at the World Baseball Classic. Back spasms limited him out of the gate in spring training but Rodríguez has slowly been building himself up and could see some game action later this week if everything trends in the right direction.

Similar to White, the Blue Jays could use Rodríguez in either the rotation or bullpen this year but have the addition of a clause in his contract where the 2024 season is the only year in his deal where the Jays can send him down to the Minors without his approval.

It appears the club would rather him be in the big leagues in the ‘pen versus starting the season in the minors but with the missed time because of the back injury, it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts out in Triple-A to give him some more innings (especially after sitting out all last year).

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Rodríguez is more of a long shot of the two other options to take over the fifth rotation spot with just two and a half weeks left in spring training but is one to watch out of the gate.