LAKELAND, Fla. — The point to first base from Miguel Cabrera to appeal a check swing was in midseason form. Never mind that there was no umpire at first base on the back fields at Tigertown on Saturday morning. Cabrera was going to have his fun with top prospect and future teammate Matt Manning on the mound, and he was going to give some feedback.
“Yeah, I got a bunch today,” Manning said, smiling.
Some of Cabrera’s exclamations to describe Manning’s pitches were not fit for print, in English or Spanish. Some of Cabrera’s reactions were simply faces. All of it revolved around the same idea: Manning’s stuff was nasty.
That fits into the case Manning is trying to make in Tigers camp as he prepares for his Grapefruit League debut. He’s slated to pitch Wednesday against the Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium, right after Daniel Norris.
While fellow Tigers prospects and good friends Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal are competing for rotation spots on the Opening Day roster after debuting last summer, Manning — who would’ve made his debut with Detroit last year if not for a strained right forearm — is expected to be a midseason promotion this year. Manning is trying his best to move up the timetable.
“I’m pitching like I’m going to try to make the team out of spring,” Manning said. “They talk a lot about how they’re going to take the best 26 guys, and I’m going to try to be one of those top 26. That’s my goal, but everything else is left up to them to make decisions for the team.”
That’s what his manager wants to hear. All of it.
“I love that attitude out of Matt,” Detroit manager A.J. Hinch said.
Earlier in this camp, Hinch talked about the pressure that goes with being a top prospect, the expectation for performances that haven’t happened yet. But as Hinch explained Saturday, there’s another side to that, where prospects have to earn their opportunity, regardless of the attention or the scouting grades that come with being the No. 25 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.
“[Manning’s] name is mentioned a lot,” Hinch said Saturday morning, “and I hope he reads it less and goes and works out on the back fields more. It’s important for him to go out and continue to get better.
“And just making it is not going to be good enough. I mean, he’s going to get an opportunity — he’s earned that — as long as he stays healthy. But he’s gotta stay away from the press clippings — and he does — and [keep his focus] more on the field. The more we hammer that home, the easier it is for him to digest.”
The 23-year-old Manning seems to have gotten the message. He stayed in Lakeland for the bulk of his offseason, building up arm strength but also adding swimming work for fitness and yoga classes for mobility. He worked on a second breaking ball with more slider movement to complement the 12-to-6 curveball he has dropped on opponents for the past couple of years.
The total product is a more polished pitcher than the youngster who lit up radar guns in Spring Training and Summer Camp last year but battled command and consistency. Manning put it on display Saturday against a trio of Major League hitters — Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro and, of course, Cabrera.
“Those are some trained eyes,” Manning said of Cabrera. “He’s seen a lot of pitchers, so any feedback that he gives me, I take and I kind of run with it. I think [Saturday], he just wanted me to focus on what’s in front of me right now, throw the ball, don’t worry about where it goes, and just compete. I started doing that a little bit and my stuff got a little sharper. He took some swings that I thought would’ve been ground balls. So anytime you can get some weak contact from him, it’s amazing.”
The feedback probably won’t move up Manning’s timetable; the Tigers’ investment in veteran pitching this offseason leaves Manning on the outside of the Opening Day rotation mix barring injuries or struggles. Either way, Manning’s time is coming, and the process of competing should leave him better prepared once he arrives.