While the Toronto Blue Jays have been in the midst of a playoff race, there has been uncertainty bubbling in the background about what's going on with Alek Manoah.
The 25-year-old was demoted to the minor leagues for the second time in 2023 on Aug. 11, but has yet to appear with the Buffalo Bisons. He did not report to Buffalo in a timely manner, which was initially reported as the result of extensive medical testing. But when he was put on the temporarily inactive list at Triple-A, questions began to arise about whether he was done pitching for the season.
Wagner brought some clarity to the situation, revealing that Manoah took umbrage with his demotion — and that was a driving force in his delayed journey to Buffalo.
“It was clear that this was not going to be a direction both parties were going to agree on," Wagner said. "And that’s why there was such a gap between Alek being optioned, failing to report to Triple-A Buffalo, and then eventually working things out.”
Not only does that poke a significant hole in the medical test story, it paints the picture of two sides in conflict and it doesn't look like Manoah has much of a leg to stand on.
According to Wagner, Manoah's camp didn't like the fact that the option was "performance-related."
It's understandable that the starter — who has projected fierce confidence throughout his career — felt like he could work through his issues at the major-league level, and contribute to his team, but his production to that point was awful. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays were in the middle of a tight playoff race, as they are to this day.
When Toronto demoted Manoah for the second time, he was below replacement level by fWAR (-0.4) and bWAR (-1.1) for the season, with minimal recent progress made. In his last five starts, he'd averaged less than five innings per outing, produced a 5.79 ERA, and allowed 44 base runners in 23.1 innings.
At the same time, Hyun-jin Ryu had returned looking better than the team could've anticipated — and its bullpen and top-of-the-rotation guys were too strong to justify using a six-man rotation over the long term.
There simply isn't an argument to be made that Manoah deserved to keep his spot. The starter seemingly refused to accept that reality, and that has had negative consequences for both player and team.
By failing to report to Buffalo, Manoah missed an opportunity to try to iron things out during a difficult season. While that's not a glamorous way for a guy who came third in 2022 Cy Young voting to spend the last seven weeks of his season, it might've been productive. If one of the Blue Jays starters got hurt, Manoah also could've put himself in a position to return to the majors.
As it stands, the club is without a true sixth starter and would have to lean on some kind of bullpen game if things went sideways for someone in their top five.
Toronto's Triple-A affiliate also suffered by having Manoah on the roster but unable to pitch, shortening its pitching staff for no good reason. That eventually led to the temporarily inactive designation, but the team was short a man for a meaningful stretch.
Manoah has finally made his way to Buffalo, but Wagner said he was just "going through things" down there having not pitched a bullpen or side session since his arrival.
The one factor left unsaid in all of this might be the biggest one from Manoah's perspective. Because of his demotions this season, his service time status could change significantly. If he'd spent all of 2023 in Toronto he'd likely attain Super Two status, allowing him to go through salary arbitration four times between 2024 and 2027.
Now, that could be off the table, meaning he'd earn the MLB minimum again in 2024 and begin his arbitration years in 2025. The difference would cost him millions of dollars. Next season the difference could be significant, and with the salary arbitration system based on raises, his 2025 salary would be significantly higher if he got a bump from a 2024 number than it would be if he started the process from scratch. Losing out on Super Two would have a compounding effect for Manoah that would affect his bottom line in each of the next four seasons.
There have undoubtedly been cases of teams demoting and recalling players strategically in an effort to manipulate their service time and ultimately pay them less. The Blue Jays themselves earned accusations of doing just that with Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
It's possible that Manoah feels like there's something fishy going on with his own service time. While that's understandable, that's really not the game the Blue Jays are playing in this case. Toronto would've loved for Manoah to replicate his 2022 season for them as they fight for their playoff lives. There is no world in which the team was looking for an excuse to demote him in hopes of saving some money.
This is a win-now team that entered 2023 with championship aspirations under the assumption that Manoah would be one of the biggest individual drivers of its success. The Blue Jays' demotions of Manoah in 2023 came out of necessity.
If he ends up losing his Super Two status that will have a minor positive effect on Toronto's payroll flexibility between 2024 and 2027. A better team-building outcome in those years — as well as 2023 — would be to have an ace-level pitcher.
Manoah hasn't approached that level this season, or even cleared the bar for viability as a fifth starter — especially considering the appealing alternative the Blue Jays have in Ryu. That's the reason he found himself in the minors.
The way this season has gone has been awful for player and team alike. Manoah's massive underperformance has hurt the Blue Jays just as the demotions have hurt the pitcher. In a best-case scenario for both sides, each would see each other as a partner working through a nightmare season and towards a career renaissance for Manoah.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, that doesn't seem to be where we're at right now.