Matt Manning had been here only once before, and if it felt surreal then — as an 18-year-old high school prospect the Tigers hadn’t yet drafted with the ninth overall pick in 2016 — it surely did Friday morning.
This was the first official day of Major League Baseball’s second attempt at spring training ahead of a 2020 season that's still no guarantee. And there were a litany of new rules and protocols everyone was required to follow at Comerica Park as pitchers and catchers — and a few others, including one Miguel Cabrera — reported for duty.
Players wore masks in the clubhouse, which is now off-limits to the media, and they mostly stayed six feet apart on the field. Pitchers carried around their own bags of personal baseballs to use. The dugouts were expanded with signage everywhere to help with the social distancing. “Weird” was the most common description used to describe the overall feeling Friday.
Yet for Manning, it was something else.
“I was pumped,” the 22-year-old right-hander said when asked about pitching again in a strange ballpark he soon hopes to call home as one of the Tigers’ top prospects. “I like the setup of it. Visually, it felt right.”
And as he threw a short bullpen session off the main diamond mound shortly before noon, he certainly did look like he belonged.
“For me, I was really excited when they told us spring training was gonna be in Detroit,” said Manning, who spent all of last season at Double-A Erie. “And being able to come out here and be in this ballpark and have this kind of feel is pretty special.”
Pretty tantalizing, too, as Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire readily admits. He was standing in the infield behind Manning as he toed the rubber Friday, something Gardenhire doesn’t often get a chance to do with everything else going on during a typical spring training workout. But with only three mounds in use — one in each bullpen, and the one in the middle of the ballpark — the Tigers’ manager got to watch all of this session.
“And looking at (bench coach) Lloyd McClendon and all these guys, we’re all going, ‘Watch this stuff,’” Gardenhire said, chuckling. “(Manning) threw a couple of curveballs and, as I did when I was a player, I buckled. So he must have pretty good stuff to buckle a veteran like me.”
He does, indeed.
Manning’s fastball sits comfortably in the mid-90s, and with his long stride and extension — he’s an athletic, 6-foot-6, 215-pounder — it certainly played well in big-league camp in Lakeland, especially up in the zone. His curveball and change-up both can be plus pitches as well, and his overall command has steadily improved the last few years as he tromped through the Tigers’ minor-league system.
Manning has remained almost injury-free since the Tigers used a top-10 pick on the two-sport star from Elk Grove, Calif., four years ago. He made 24 starts for Erie last summer, compiling an 11-5 record and 2.54 ERA with 148 strikeouts and 38 walks in 133 2/3 innings. Opponents batted .192 against him.
That’s why he’s ranked one of the top 20 prospects in the game by both Baseball America and FanGraphs. And while he’d sit atop most MLB organizational prospect lists as a potential front-line starter, Manning has some company in the queue waiting for a major-league call-up in Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal.
“I feel pretty close,” he said Friday, when asked if he felt he was ready to make that jump. “You know, if it was up to me, I hope I could be there tomorrow.”
Today, though, that seems unlikely. The Tigers will pare down a 60-player pool to a 30-man active roster for the scheduled start of the season July 23 or 24. (That limit drops to 26 by late August.) And the major-league rotation seems largely set for the moment, with Matthew Boyd, Jordan Zimmermann, Spencer Turnbull, Daniel Norris and Ivan Nova penciled in as probable starters. Former All-Star Michael Fulmer, also was on the mound pitching a bullpen session Friday and could be ready soon after a 16-month rehab from Tommy John surgery.
Which means Manning — and Mize and Skubal and Alex Faedo — probably are ticketed for Toledo, which is where they were expected to start this season, anyway. Only now in the absence of a minor-league season, they’ll simply continue to train and scrimmage there with a couple dozen others the rest of the summer, waiting for the phone to ring.
“They’re gonna have a plan for us, wherever I’m at,” Manning said. “If it’s in Toledo with the taxi squad, it’s gonna be a lot of intrasquad (games), and I know those can get competitive. … For me, it’s just being ready at any moment. You never know what could happen this year.”
That much should be obvious to everyone by now. After Manning’s first big-league spring training was cut short by the COVID-19 shutdown, he went back home to stay with his family in suburban Sacramento, California. He continued to get his workouts in there and even was able to do some live pitching against other pros, including fellow Tigers minor-leaguer Derek Hill and another Elk Grove product, Dylan Carlson, the top prospect in the Cardinals’ organization.
“I think I was able to make some really big gains during this quarantine,” Manning said.
Now he’ll see if he can build on that in a brief stint here in Detroit, where Fulmer is among those talking up the young guns’ attitudes in addition to their arms. They’re disciplined, drama-free self-starters, by all accounts, “and they do a good job of asking questions and wanting to learn,” Fulmer said.
In Manning’s case, he says, “The thing we’ve kind of talked about is pitch sequencing. Just learning when to go up in the zone, when to stay down, when to drop in the curveball and when to stay out.”
As for when he’ll get a chance to come back up — and stay up — that’s another matter, altogether.
“I’m gonna put my best foot forward — I’m gonna do the best I can,” Manning said. “But I think that’s kind of out of my reach for decision-making. So I’m just gonna come every day and be the best player I can be.”
A bone of contention
Service time has been a divisive issue in the labor dispute between MLB owners and the players’ union, as teams go to great lengths to avoid starting the clock on top prospects and thus extend team control and salary arbitration rights.
Tigers general manager Al Avila won’t frame any of his looming decisions in those terms, even if it’s clearly a factor. Instead, he’ll keep talking about taking a “methodical” approach to everything.
“You gotta be very smart about this,” Avila said last week, shortly after the plans for this abbreviated MLB season were finalized. “We can’t think short-sighted on this. Every decision is very important. We’re looking at this rebuilding process in the long-term. We’ve always said we want the success to be sustainable.”
How long they’ll be able to sustain that stance when it comes to their top pitchers remains to be seen. Initially, the plan was for Mize and Manning and Skubal to begin the season in Triple-A and then make their debuts later in what figured to be another losing campaign in Detroit. But then came the shutdown and the best-laid plans went out the window.
“It was tough for everybody, especially with how much momentum me and my teammates had going in,” Manning said. “We thought there was kind of a plan going forward that we could see happening. But it’s just another bump in the road, I guess. It’s nothing too major.”
And standing on that bump Friday morning, it sure felt good to be back. And if it felt like home, well, that's even better. Someday, it will be. The sooner, the better.