The final piece of the Detroit Tigers’ long-desired, rarely seen “Big Three” is finally making his big-league debut: Matt Manning, taken ninth overall in 2016 by the Tigers is set to start Thursday night in Anaheim, California, against the Los Angeles Angels.
Manning was part of a dominant group of starters for Double-A Erie in 2019, along with 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize and 2018 ninth-rounder Tarik Skubal. It wasn’t hard then to squint and see the top three spots in the 2021 Tigers rotation filled by the trio. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the 2020 minor-league season was canceled, slowing their development. All three were assigned to the Tigers’ alternate training site in Toledo, but while Mize and Skubal went on to make the big-league debuts in August, Manning was shut down with a forearm strain.
IN HIS OWN WORDS: What Manning learned in Triple-A Toledo before getting called up
But hey, that’s water under the old training site bridge, as they say; Manning’s set to make the most anticipated debut wearing the Old English D since, well, Skubal and Mize last August. Likewise, he’s not the first heralded Tigers pitching prospect to make his big-league debut over the past 20 seasons.
Spoiler: It hasn’t always been a smooth transition. As Tigers general manager Al Avila noted before the back-to-back debuts of Skubal and Mize last year: “Remember that there’s guys in that past that we brought up (where) it takes a little while to really blend in and take off. But at the same time, it is exciting.”
(And, of course, we have to note that Avila and the Tigers have drafted three starters in the first round over the past decade who have yet to make a start at the big-league level: Alex Faedo (18th overall in 2017) had Tommy John surgery in December 2020 and likely won’t pitch until 2022. Beau Burrows (22nd overall in 2015) has made six appearances in relief, including his 2021 debut on Saturday, in which he gave up four runs in 1 2/3 innings; he was designated for assignment on Tuesday. Jonathan Crawford (20th overall in 2013) got as high as Class-A West Michigan in the Tigers system, was set to Cincinnati in the Eugenio Suarez trade and has spent 2020-21 pitching in independent leagues with a 12.96 ERA.)
And now, the prospects who made it:
2018: Casey Mize
Aug. 19, 2020: Mize was simply dominating in High-A Lakeland in 2019, with three earned runs in 30⅔ innings; that was followed by a midseason promotion to Double-A that featured a no-hitter in his first game with Erie. The result of his MLB debut against the White Sox in Chicago — a 5-3 loss for the Tigers in which he allowed three runs over 4⅓ innings — didn’t measure up, but his peripheral stats showed potential; Mize became the first pitcher in franchise history to strike out seven with no walks in a debut.
Similarly, Mize was pleased — “I’m not gonna lie to you, I had a blast out there.” — yet focused on what he needed to work on, namely, his slider: “I threw some good ones, had some strikeouts on them, but there were a lot really backing up and staying over the middle of the plate. We have to fix that.” Then-manager Ron Gardenhire was more forgiving: “For his first outing in the big leagues, against a team like that, he doesn’t really realize how well he threw the baseball. He’ll figure that out as we talk.” Mize muddled through his final six starts of 2020, with a 7.13 ERA in 24 innings, and his first five starts of 2021, with a 5.06 ERA in 26⅔ innings. Since the start of May, though, he has eight straight starts of at least six innings with three runs allowed or less, with a 2.66 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 50⅔ innings over that span.
2018: Tarik Skubal
Aug. 18, 2020: Skubal leapt onto prospect lists with 179 strikeouts in 122⅔ innings in High-A and Double-A combined in 2019. His major-league debut, also against the White Sox in Chicago, didn’t go as well. The lefthander struck out just one while allowed four earned runs on seven hits and a walk in two innings, taking the loss.
Gardenhire had an explanation for Skubal’s struggles against a lineup that featured eight right-handed hitters: “He was really throwing it,” Gardenhire said afterward. “I think he was probably overthrowing just about everything. And, you know, we just didn’t know which way it was going to go. And those guys, they’re hot. They’re swinging really good. It was great experience for him.” Skubal made seven more appearances in 2020, posting a 4.80 ERA with 36 strikeouts in 30 innings. This season, he has struck out at least five in all eight of his starts since the start of May.
2009: Jacob Turner
July 30, 2011: Turner, taken ninth overall, was the third high-school pitcher selected. He rose quickly through the Tigers’ system with a 3.67 ERA in Class-A at 19 in 2010 and a 3.72 ERA with 90 strikeouts in 110⅔ innings in 17 Double-A starts. When a trade-deadline deal for little-known Seattle starter Doug Fister opened a one-off spot in the rotation, Turner got the call. The 20-year-old didn’t disappoint, allowing two earned runs, three hits, three walks and six strikeouts over 5⅓ innings against a solid Angels lineup. It was enough to get the righty a standing ovation from the Comerica Park crowd. “Once they started cheering, I really don’t know how to describe it,” Turner told the Free Press. “My body felt like it went numb. That was part of the highlight of my day, to be honest.”
Then-Tigers manager Jim Leyland was more effusive: “Some of you guys will be gone and I will be gone, and he still will be pitching here for a long time,” Leyland said. “He’s that good. He’s one of the highly rated prospects in the country by everybody, and so that’s where it stands.” Leyland’s crystal ball was a bit foggy on Turner; he made two more starts with the Tigers, both in September after the end of the minor-league season, allowing 10 runs in 7⅓ innings. He started 2012 in Triple-A and made three more starts with Detroit — allowing 11 earned runs in 12⅓ innings — before the World Series-chasing Tigers used him in a late-July deal with the Marlins for veteran right-hander Anibal Sanchez and infielder Omar Infante. Turner never quite clicked, posting a 5.41 ERA from 2013-18 with the Marlins, Cubs, White Sox, Nationals and one final start with the Tigers.
2007: Rick Porcello
April 9, 2011: Porcello was considered the top high-school arm in the ’07 draft, but fell to the Tigers at No. 27 thanks to having two things: super-agent Scott Boras as his “adviser” and a scholarship to NCAA powerhouse North Carolina. Still, the Tigers handed Porcello a record-tying bonus and started him in High-A Lakeland in 2008. There, he posted a 2.66 ERA with 72 strikeouts in 125 innings. A 2.30 ERA in 15⅔ spring training innings (albeit with only eight strikeouts) earned him a spot in the rotation and the start of the opening series finale in Toronto; the 20-year-old allowed four earned runs on nine hits, one walk and four strikeouts over five innings, though he was stung by solo homers in the fifth and sixth innings.
After the game, Leyland was measured with his praise: “I thought he kept his composure really good, and I thought he pitched well. He made a bad pitch and he paid a price — (Adam) Lind hit the hanging curve (for a homer in the sixth). For his first outing, he handled himself very well.” Porcello spent the entire 2009 season with the Tigers, finishing with a 3.96 ERA over 170⅔ innings and a third-place finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting; he maintained an ERA in the 4’s in each of the next four seasons before seemingly breaking through with a 3.43 ERA in 2014. That offseason, he was dealt to the Red Sox, for whom he would win the AL Cy Young Award in 2016 (edging Tigers starter Justin Verlander).
2006: Andrew Miller
May 18, 2007: Miller, a third-round pick of the Rays in 2003, opted to attend North Carolina and was selected sixth overall on June 6 by the suddenly competitive Tigers, experiencing their first playoff chase in more than a decade. By Aug. 30 — after three scoreless relief outings for High-A Lakeland — Miller was with the Tigers; that day, he pitched a scoreless eighth inning in a 2-0 loss to the Yankees in New York, including a forceout of future Tiger Johnny Damon, who was complimentary afterward: “He’s going to be around for a while,” Damon said. “They’ll get a nice look at him in September and see if he’s going to be on the playoff roster. But this was a good place to get his start.” Miller made seven more appearances (all in relief) for the 2006 Tigers, allowing seven earned runs in 9⅓ innings.
He didn’t make his first start until the following May, after putting up a 0.59 ERA in 30⅔ innings at Double-A. The lanky lefty was equally impressive against big-league hitters, scattering four hits and three walks while striking out two in a righty-heavy six-inning appearance against the Cardinals at Comerica Park. Leyland was, you guessed it, pleased: “This is a real talent. He should have a very, very bright future.”
It wouldn’t be with the Tigers: After 12 more starts with Detroit (and a 6.21 ERA in 58 innings), Miller was shipped to the Marlins in December 2007 as part of the deal for Miguel Cabrera. In three seasons and 58 appearances for Florida, Miller had a 5.89 ERA; it wouldn’t be until 2012, in the second year of a stint with the Red Sox, that Miller would move to the bullpen full time — in 10 years since the start of that season, Miller has a 2.58 ERA and 664 strikeouts in 446⅔ innings, in 489 relief appearances.
2004: Justin Verlander
July 4, 2005: Contract talks with Verlander, drafted No. 2 overall out of Old Dominion University, went all the way to Oct. 25, 2004, meaning he didn’t start his pro career until 2005. Not that it showed: He opened ’05 in High-A Lakeland with a 1.67 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 86 innings, then didn’t allow an earned run and struck out 18 in his first 15 innings with Double-A Erie. That earned JV a spot start in a day-night doubleheader in Cleveland, and some high hopes from then-GM Dave Dombrowski: “We’ve got a plane ticket for him to go back to Erie on Tuesday morning,” he said. “But, hey, if the kid pitches a whale of a game, they can always pick up the phone and call me. I’ve learned you never have a plan that’s 100 percent.”
That … was not an issue: Verlander’s first big-league inning saw him allow three runs on four hits, with two walks and a wild pitch to boot. And then a leadoff double in the second. After that, though? He settled down, retiring 12 of the next 13 batters, lasting 5 1/3 innings and striking out four overall. The performance won him some rave reviews, though not the game (a 6-0 Tigers loss), from then-Tigers manager Alan Trammell — “He’s the real deal.” — Indians outfielder Coco Crisp — “He got his first-inning welcome, and then he said, ‘Let me show you what I’m made of.’ ” — and then-Cleveland manager Eric Wedge — “The kid has a hell of an arm.” Verlander made five more starts for Erie, raising his Double-A ERA to 0.28, and another doubleheader start for the Tigers in late July, allowing five runs over six innings vs. the Twins. Tigers pitching coach Bob Cluck had some advice for Verlander after his second big-league start: “You’ve got to work on your curveball and change-up — throw them on the first pitch at times even though you know you’ll probably be able to blow a fastball past the batter. Work on major league stuff even though you’re in the minor leagues.” Unfortunately, shoulder tightness ended Verlander’s season in early August.
But not his career. In 2006, he earned a spot in the rotation in spring training, won the AL Rookie of the Year award (with eight All-Star berths, two Cy Young Awards and three no-hitters to come) and led the Tigers to their first World Series appearance since 1984.
So, no pressure, Mr. Manning.
Free Press sports writers Vince Ellis, John Lowe, John Paul Morosi, Evan Petzold and Michael Rosenberg contributed to this report.