If you ask big Tigers fans to name five of the organization's most promising minor league prospects, odds are you'd hear some combination of 15 or so names.
And not one of them would be Joe Mantiply, who, in Baseball America rankings released this month, still couldn't find a spot in its top 10 Tigers prospects.
Consider that par for the course. Mantiply's been overlooked basically all of his athletic life.
He was barely recruited out of Tunstall High in southwest Virginia, so he ended up at Virginia Tech, the school his then-coach acknowledged was everybody's fallback. After a good junior season as a Hokie, he wasn't drafted until the 28th round, so he stayed in school. And after a great senior season as a Hokie, he wasn't drafted until the 27th round.
"It's him against the world," said Pete Hughes, Mantiply's baseball coach at Virginia Tech, who now is the head coach at Oklahoma. "He's been out there trying to prove a lot of people wrong for a long time."
Yet, today, Mantiply appears on the verge of the ultimate "I told you I could do it" moment.
Against all odds, he's a serious candidate to pitch for the Tigers at some point in 2015, and possibly even as early as Opening Day — and if he eventually makes it, as most in the organization now expect he will, he would become just the eighth man in the history of the franchise to get to the major leagues with the Tigers after being drafted in the 27th round or lower. The last to do it was utility infielder Will Rhymes (27th round, 2005).
"Every once in a while, you can find a diamond in the rough," said Al Avila, the Tigers' assistant general manager. "And a tall, left-handed pitcher that has deception, control and command is a good one to bet on."
Mantiply first seriously caught the Tigers' attention this year at Single A West Michigan, where he pitched so brilliantly that, briefly this summer, they actually considered him for a spot-start call-up. But it was Buck Farmer who eventually went to the majors; Mantiply instead went to Double A Erie, and now has wrapped up another successful stop, in the Arizona Fall League, where teams like to send their most on-the-brink prospects.
For the year, at Single A, Double A and the AFL, the 6-foot-4 left-hander was 6-4 with a 2.53 ERA, exclusively out of the bullpen. In 96 innings, he allowed 81 hits, while striking out 101 and walking 24.
"He just took off. He definitely opened some eyes," said Scott Pleis, the Tigers' director of amateur scouting. "And if you keep having success out there, you can be elevated pretty quickly."
'His stuff is not electric'
The first thing you should know about Mantiply — and it's the reason you probably don't know much about Mantiply — is he doesn't throw hard. He's not Bruce Rondon, firing one 100 mph fastball after another. "His stuff is not electric," Avila said, matter-of-factly.
In fact, on his good days Mantiply tops out at 91 or 92, and mostly sits around the high 80s and low 90s with his fastball.
So let's be honest: Being an always-in-demand lefty helps his cause, so much so that when asked how often he thanks God he was born that way, Mantiply shot back, "Every day!"
But there's more to it, of course. Not all left-handers have Mantiply's skill set. For starters, one of his biggest weapons is deception. He throws three-quarters, and from the first-base side of the rubber, helping him hide the ball tremendously. That's the lack-of-velocity equalizer.
He's also got a plus change-up — that's actually been his best pitch for some time, dating to high school, which is rather interesting, considering how many pitchers spend years trying to master that one. (Hello, Jeremy Bonderman.) His fastball acts like a sinker. And he throws a slider, which is a work-in-progress pitch. (Hey, everybody has one!). Meanwhile, his baseball acumen is absolutely through the roof. In other words, he knows which pitch to throw in every situation and which quadrant of the zone to throw it in, and that makes him particularly effective pitching inside. That's huge, because pitching inside effectively makes him almost as tough on right-handed hitters as he is on lefties, which will help Mantiply's case for a major league call-up, probably at some point soon. He's not your typical situation lefty, in other words.
That comes from his four years as a starting pitcher at Virginia Tech — and, again, from having a mighty dandy change-up.
"Having a good change-up kind of gives you something that moves away from the right-handed hitters," Mantiply said. "Even when I was in high school, the change-up always has been my go-to pitch."
And it'll likely be a pitch that's heavily observed in February in Lakeland, Florida. Everybody who saw even one inning in the American League Championship Series knows the Tigers need bullpen help, and a whole lot of it. A particular emphasis will be placed on finding lefty relief, as Phil Coke is a free agent and not likely to return, and Patrick McCoy was just claimed off waivers by the Orioles. That leaves the Tigers, at the moment, with Kyle Lobstein and Blaine Hardy and not much else.
Could Mantiply get a serious look? No Tigers official will say that publicly, of course.
"It's not a wild and crazy question," Avila said. "But I would not want to speculate on that."
That's not an uncommon response. The Tigers absolutely don't like to put unnecessary pressure on a kid. But, the truth is, they already thought enough of him to consider him this past summer. So why not next spring or summer?
"That crosses my mind sometimes," said Mantiply, 23, an unassuming kid with shaggy hair, who still lives in Virginia during the offseason, where he hangs with friends and rides four-wheelers — when he's not working at UPS, of course.
"At the same time, I'm just trying to do well at the position I'm at now. As long as I stay healthy, that'll all work out."
Still much to prove
It didn't always look like it would work out for Mantiply. There was the lack of recruiting, and while he was drafted three different times, it was never very high — 48th round out of high school by the Mets, 28th round in 2012 by the Phillies and 27th round in 2013 by the Tigers. It was the 2012 draft that really stung, even though Mantiply doesn't want to admit it.
"You don't want to say that, because getting drafted is awesome for anyone," Mantiply said, knowing many athletes would kill to go in the 50th round, let alone the 28th. "I thought I deserved to go a little higher, but then there's people you want to prove wrong. Even with high draft picks, they have people they want to prove wrong.
"I am proving to myself, mainly, that I can do this and I deserve to be here."
Said Hughes, his old college coach who still texts regularly with Mantiply: "He's been that kid that responds to every challenge."
If there was a silver lining to the 2012 draft, it's that it convinced Mantiply to go back to school. That'll eventually lead to getting a degree — he's three classes away and plans to get them done eventually. And then there's this: He put up a senior season to remember at Virginia Tech. As the ace of the staff, the Friday night starter, he was 6-1 with a 2.85 ERA, including two wins over top-five teams, No. 4 Florida State and Nov. 5 Virginia. Tigers area scout Bill Buck had been high on Mantiply by his junior year, so much so that Pleis had plans to scout him in-person, too — only for a snowstorm to wipe that trip out. Eventually, the team backed off because it felt Mantiply didn't want to leave college early. His senior-year success made him an easy draft pick in 2013.
Less than a year-and-a-half later, the kid taken after 815 others in the draft is thriving in the pros, even drawing some comparisons to stud lefty reliever Andrew Miller — the body type and effectiveness against right-handers are the similarities, not the velocity, obviously — while giving the Tigers something to think about come February and March.
For now, Mantiply's not worried about all that. He's far more focused on getting some R&R back in Virginia, before heading to Lakeland, where his dream job will be within his grasp.
"I'm definitely ready to get home," Mantiply said last week. "It's been a really long year, my longest year."
Only seven guys have debuted with the Tigers after Detroit drafted them in the 27th round or lower, as Joe Mantiply now is trying to do:
■ Gary Ignasiak, 36th round, 1967
■ Don Heinkel, 30th round, 1982
■ Rusty Meacham, 33rd round, 1987
■ Gabe Kapler, 57th round, 1995
■ Eric Eckenstahler, 32nd round, 1999
■ Dusty Ryan, 48th round, 2003
■ Will Rhymes, 27th round, 2005