Why Blue Jays need to shoulder some blame in Alek Manoah fiasco

The Alek Manoah debacle hasn't been handled well by any of the parties involved.

Alek Manoah was the Blue Jays' Opening Day starter in 2023 but his season didn't go as planned. (Photo by Thomas Skrlj/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Alek Manoah was the Blue Jays' Opening Day starter in 2023 but his season didn't go as planned. (Photo by Thomas Skrlj/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

There is plenty of blame to share for Alek Manoah’s nightmare 2023 season, both for the player and the Toronto Blue Jays themselves.

Toronto's 2023 Opening Day starter is unlikely to throw another pitch this season after reportedly being shut down for the remainder of the year. It concludes a miserable third big-league campaign that included career-worsts across the board.

Manoah, who’ll finish with a 5.87 ERA and 6.02 FIP over 19 starts, repeatedly failed to execute when he took the mound for the Blue Jays and rarely put his club in a position to succeed.

It was the 25-year-old’s responsibility to help lead a starting rotation also headlined by Kevin Gausman, José Berríos and Chris Bassitt. Instead, he failed to deliver on that expectation while becoming the weakest link and ultimately lost his spot shortly after Hyun Jin Ryu returned from Tommy John surgery.

From a performance-based standpoint, Manoah was primarily responsible for his ineffectiveness and inability to replicate an All-Star performance from a season ago. There isn’t anyone else he should be looking to blame for that outcome.

But, at the same time, the Blue Jays also didn’t do the 2022 AL Cy Young finalist any favours with his usage in the majors, particularly before and after his first of two minor-league demotions.

Toronto’s coaching staff ran Manoah out 13 times prior to optioning the struggling hurler to the Florida Complex League on June 6, one day after he allowed six runs over just one-third of an inning against the Houston Astros. Warning signs, however, were already preexisting long before that outing.

The most obvious one was Manoah’s sporadic command, as he issued the most walks (42) among 94 qualified major-league starters (50 innings minimum) before being sent down. Since he was also struggling to generate swings and misses, that resulted in an alarming 2.1% K-BB rate difference.

Avoiding hard contact — previously among the 2022 All-Star’s strengths — was also a major concern, as evidenced by his 42.8% hard-hit rate against and 9.1% barrel rate against. With 40% of his batted balls put in the air, the situation snowballed even further, with his 11 home runs surrendered ranking among the top 15 in the majors.

Most of Manoah’s pitch variables were also worrisome, as his fastball velocity was a full tick slower than in 2022 (93.9 mph), while his slider averaged two fewer inches of horizontal break than its usual output of 14.

Manoah was a Cy Young finalist in 2022 but took a major step back in his third season with the Blue Jays. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
Manoah was a Cy Young finalist in 2022 but took a major step back in his third season with the Blue Jays. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

If that weren’t enough, the 6-foot-6 righty completed at least five innings in just five of his 12 starts — a feat he accomplished 31 consecutive times during the regular season and in his lone postseason start in 2022 — leading up to that fateful showdown versus Houston.

The breaking point probably should’ve occurred after Manoah walked a career-high seven batters while being charged with five runs on six hits over four innings against the New York Yankees on May 15. However, due to insufficient pitching depth, Toronto didn’t possess any better alternatives.

Zach Thompson and Casey Lawrence (released in July) were the only traditional starters with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, although both carried horrific ERAs at the time. And it didn’t help there were slim pickings beyond that pair.

Mitch White was supposed to be the organization’s No. 6 starter this season. But the 28-year-old had a delayed start to 2023 due to a nagging shoulder injury from last winter, preventing him from logging more than three outings with the Bisons by mid-May.

Manoah paid the price for the franchise’s repeated failures to address the Triple-A pitching staff, causing him to make four additional starts before giving the Blue Jays no choice but to pull him from the rotation. But the damage had already been done.

It was clear the 11th-overall draft selection from 2019 desperately required a reset, as he owned a 6.36 ERA and 6.50 FIP upon being assigned to the FCL Blue Jays. If that move had come a few weeks earlier, perhaps it could’ve prevented the situation from reaching a point of no return.

In the end, Manoah travelled to the Player Development Complex in Dunedin, Fla., in hopes of correcting his mechanical defects and returning with a vengeance. The problem, however, is he had less than a month to course correct before being ushered back up to the majors.

That wasn’t enough time to make all the necessary adjustments — both in the organization’s high-tech pitching lab and during live-game reps. With how much was riding on this experiment, it couldn’t afford to be rushed.

Except that’s exactly what happened.

Manoah may have been ready to return mentally when the Blue Jays recalled him for a start against the Detroit Tigers on July 7, but his physical attributes certainly could’ve benefited from an extended stint in the minors.

Deciding to promote Manoah was deemed necessary as the Blue Jays’ four-man rotation and bullpen were running on fumes in his absence, leaning heavily on the off days provided to them. But that likely would’ve been avoidable had the system featured a reliable No. 6 starter.

Things went south shortly after Manoah's promising return in Detroit, as the Florida native faltered to a 5.79 ERA while posting 17 walks and 23 punchouts over his final five starts leading up to his second demotion of the season.

To the Blue Jays’ credit, Manoah had an opportunity to maintain his roster spot even after Ryu returned to the rotation. Once the six-man starting staff served its purpose, they couldn’t justify having the young righty continue working through his issues on a playoff-contending roster.

Still, considering how poorly events have played out between both sides since then, it’s fair to wonder if the Blue Jays could’ve handled matters differently to avoid or lessen the messy fallout with Manoah.

The former ace failing to immediately report to Triple-A after being assigned to that level on Aug. 11 was a PR disaster for everyone. Not only did it nix his chances of pitching again this season, but it also put the Bisons’ pitching staff at a disadvantage for almost a month before he landed on the temporarily inactive list to open a roster spot.

Manoah could’ve returned to the majors on an emergency basis if an injury occurred to the club’s rotation or if they required a 29th player for a doubleheader. Or, at the very least, he could’ve used these final few weeks to test his craft against minor-league competition.

Rather than opting for any of those routes, the relationship between the player and team now appears damaged because of a conflict over his performance-related demotion to Buffalo, with a recent report indicating that was the main reason behind his delayed arrival.

Given their current position in the tightly contested AL wild-card race, this isn’t a dispute the Blue Jays can afford to lose much sleep over at the moment. For now, it has to be put on the back burner until the offseason arrives.

At that point, with Ryu eligible for free agency and many of the Blue Jays’ top pitching prospects at Double-A or below, seeking external additions will be critical this winter. That way, Bowden Francis and Manoah won’t be the only two competing for the final rotation spot in 2024.

But it also probably won’t be that simple for Manoah, who’ll have to earn every opportunity that comes his way while on the path to redemption. A significant aspect of that will be repairing any relationships that have since become strained — both with his coaches and teammates.

After everything that has transpired thus far, hitting the ground running when pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin next spring must be his top priority now that his 2023 campaign has wrapped.