Tigers' No. 1 pick Manning adjusting to rigors of pro ball

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
1. Matt Manning, RH starter, age 19, 6-6, 190: Manning is an athlete – a big man who could have played college basketball in the fashion of his father, Rich, who worked two seasons in the NBA. Pedigree doesn’t matter here as much as an important, related fact. Manning has played other sports along the way. He is a pitcher with fewer miles on his odometer than often is the case for teenage standouts. Toss in his big fastball and helpful package of secondary pitches, and the Tigers were confident last June they had added (signing price: $3.5 million) a potential ace right-hander to a farm system begging for bright lights. Manning is progressing nicely: fastball in the mid 90s, curveball, baby change-up that steadily should grow. He struck out 46 batters in 29 2/3 innings during last summer’s debut in the Gulf Coast League. Expect a few more signs in 2017 for why the Tigers made him last year’s ninth overall pick.

Ten weeks ago he was taking hold of his diploma and vacating Sheldon High in Sacramento, Calif.

Today, at 18, he is bunking in a minor-league dormitory at Lakeland, Fla. He is a professional baseball player. It’s his job. His career. His new life.

And the Tigers’ first-round draft pick from June, a 6-foot-6 right-handed starter named Matt Manning, is settling in.

Manning, who pitches for the Gulf Coast League West team at the Tigers’ minor league headquarters, is a not-so-impressive 0-2, with a 4.63 ERA, and a solid 1.20 WHIP.

It’s his secondary numbers that better explain why Detroit made him the ninth overall pick in June.

He has struck out 37 batters in 23⅓ innings. He has walked five.

“Very talented young man,” said Dave Owen, the Tigers’ director of player development, who watched Manning’s last start, Tuesday, against a Yankees Gulf Coast League team. “Fastball at 93 to 94, and once in a while 96, and at times he was moving it around. And the makings of a breaking pitch (curveball) and change-up.”

Manning signed a $3.5 million deal in June rather than sidle off to Loyola Marymount where he otherwise would have opted for a full basketball/baseball scholarship.

He is a certified all-around athlete whose dad, Rich, played two seasons in the NBA (Grizzlies, Clippers) and whose brother, Ryan, is on the Air Force Academy’s basketball roster.

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“He’s a multi-sport athlete and those guys, to me, have an awareness of where their body is,” Owen said. “He showed it on the basketball court. He does it on the mound. It’s a positioning of body, of landing, of seeing the way his arm works. You can expect him to be able to make adjustments. And that athleticism always helps.”

Another advantage, in the Tigers’ mind, from Manning’s devotion to two sports is that it reduced mileage on Manning’s teenage arm.

“We’re very pleased he wasn’t a high-innings guy,” Owen said, speaking, as one example, to Manning’s senior season when he threw 401/3 innings, striking out 77 and walking 21. “And that’s why we’re going to be very careful this summer. There’s a lot going on with a young man getting into pro ball. He’s getting to know the feeling of showing up every day at the ballpark, feeling his body’s adjustment.”

There are multiple coaches and gurus supervising Manning, which is the case in the GCL. It’s a rookie and training league that now features two Tigers teams after the Tigers closed their Venezuelan Summer League entry and moved it to the Lakeland complex.

A.J. Sager (roving minor-league pitching coach) and Jaime Garcia, (extended spring-training pitching coach) work in partnership with GCL pitching tutor Nick Avila.

The goal is to refine skills, which in Manning’s or any teen’s case, are rough. Manning’s hit total (23 in 23⅓ innings) is testimony there.

“That hit number is going to go down,” Owen said. “Once he learns to set up hitters, and read swings better, the hits will decrease. Right now, he’s giving some hits up on pitches that later on you probably won’t see him throw in certain situations.

“But we’re very happy with the walks and strikeouts and, really, just his overall composure. He’s a very mature kid.

“It can be a rough baptism, professional baseball,” Owen said. “Getting acclimated, being on your own a lot, a lot of time to yourself off the field. But I’ve met his dad, and being a professional athlete himself, the kid has some support there.”

A program is in place, and not only for Manning. The GCL schedule runs through this month. Heading into autumn, prospects are headed for intense schooling at the team’s on-field seminars known as the Instructional League.

And then, there’s a short offseason. After which everything begins again on that long, and often lonely, journey and bid to crack the big leagues.