How Detroit Tigers will prepare prospect Matt Manning for major league debut this year

Detroit Free Press

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Matt Manning entered spring training with the goal of winning a spot in the starting rotation. Last week, the Detroit Tigers decided to cut him from major-league camp, eliminating any chance of him opening the season in the majors.

This was planned.

The 23-year-old prospect, ranked by MLB Pipeline at No. 5 in the farm system, won’t make his big-league debut until at least the midway point of 2021. He is arguably one of the best five or six pitchers available, but manager AJ Hinch made sure to send a different message.

“Once you get here, we want you to stay,” Hinch said Sunday, recalling his recent meeting with Manning. “You’ve got to be able to do a few more things better in order for us to hand you the ball in the rotation.”

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The Tigers have limited Manning to two innings per outing. Last August, he was shut down at the alternate training site in Toledo with a right forearm strain. Fellow right-handed pitching prospect Alex Faedo was shut down with the same injury; he underwent Tommy John surgery in December.

So, the Tigers don’t want to rush Manning’s progression.

“You’re going to see him build up and get ready for the Triple-A season in May,” Hinch said. “Then he can start to push us as he gains more experience and becomes a more ready pitcher in some of the margins around pitching. That’s going to be key for him.”

Manning has a 3.38 ERA across eight innings (four games) in camp with three walks and seven strikeouts. He made his first start Sunday against the Philadelphia Phillies, and his fastball command faltered early on.

At times this spring, he has reached 97 mph. He struck out Bryce Harper on March 10 with three consecutive pitches. Other times, like Sunday, he hovered around 93 mph and couldn’t get above 95 mph. Manning said afterward he isn’t concerned about his velocity.

[ Detroit Tigers’ Matt Manning has MLB debut on his mind: ‘I’m ready to go’ ]

Yet Manning admits he needs to “find my routine” as a starter. He hasn’t started an official regular-season contest since the 2019 season for Double-A Erie.

Now his focus is becoming a complete pitcher.

“I’m not overmatched,” Manning said Sunday. “I don’t think I was put in a position I wasn’t ready for. I battled. … Last year, I knew I could compete. This year, I knew I could pitch well. I didn’t have to second-guess some pitches.”

Hinch doesn’t want Manning to rely solely on his fastball and curveball. Possessing just two elite pitches won’t produce dominating success. That’s why he continues to focus on his slider, an offering Hinch thinks will “be pretty good” in the future.

Manning could benefit from mixing in more changeups, too.

“It’s a different look from my curveball,” Manning said about his slider. “It’s a little harder, a little sharper. Just enough to get people off my curveball. It’s another thing to put in the back of hitters’ heads.”

Innings make impact

Beyond Manning’s makeup, the Tigers have inning limits to worry about. Pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal — after making their MLB debuts in 2020 — remain on track to make the rotation out of spring training.

It’s unlikely the Tigers will give them a per-game limit, as that philosophy would take away the learning opportunities involved with battling deep into outings. Rather, Mize and Skubal are going to be under a season-long restriction.

At some point, they will likely need to be shut down or sent to the bullpen.

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That’s when Manning should emerge.

“The staff is going to need a lot of pitching this year from a lot of different places,” Manning said. “When my number is called, I’ll be ready to eat up some innings. I’m just going to get ready and be ready.”

The Triple-A season begins May 4, with the Mud Hens playing at Fifth Third Field. It’s unclear if Manning will pitch Opening Day in Toledo, but he’s going to get ample opportunities to prepare for his Comerica Park arrival.

Until then, Manning isn’t sure whether he is going to stick around in Lakeland for minor-league spring training (after the big leaguers leave for Detroit) or compete at the alternate training site in Toledo through April.

But the plan is the same.

“My first steps are to build up,” Manning said. “Go three, four, five innings and go deep into those games, pitch to contact and try to keep my pitch count low. Just trying not to have as many mistakes. When I get to the big leagues, there are no holes in any lineup. I’m going to have to attack the whole time.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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