Tigers' top prospect Manning adjusts on, off mound

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

This is the fifth day of a series that previews the 2017 MLB season. Today: Detroit Tigers position players.

Not that the Tigers create news when they take a tall, hard-throwing pitcher with their first-round draft pick (see: Justin Verlander, Andrew Miller, Rick Porcello, Jacob Turner, etc.), but there was a certain cachet to the man they drafted ninth overall last June.

Tigers prospect Matt Manning struck out 46 in 29.1 innings last season in the Gulf Coast League.

Matt Manning had been a two-sport star at Sheldon High in Elk Grove, California. He could have played college basketball or baseball at Loyola Marymount. His dad, Rich, had played in the NBA. And that was one reason the Tigers were interested in Matt, beyond the fact he was 6-foot-6 and had a mid-90s fastball. Because of basketball, Manning had a bit less wear-and-tear than is customary for prep right-handers with his profile.

He signed for $3.5 million and began his first summer of professional baseball with the rookie Gulf Coast League at Lakeland, Florida, where his numbers didn’t disappoint: 29.1 innings pitched, 27 hits, seven walks, and a whopping 46 strikeouts.

Manning, pretty much by consensus, is the Tigers’ top prospect as he readies for his first full year of professional baseball. He spoke about his transition from being a teenage prep star a year ago to this spring’s 19-year-old Tigers prospect in a conversation with The Detroit News.

Henning: Avila in tough spot to keep Tigers in hunt

Q. Given that you did have a taste of minor-league ball last summer, what did you learn about the professional game?

A. "I learned how to play every day, how to start every five days. I learned a lot about pitch sequences, about keeping the ball in the zone, where to throw to different hitters. Mostly, I got my toes wet.

Q. I know they’re very careful about young pitchers’ arms. Have they given you any sense for how many innings they want you to throw this year?

A. "They haven’t told me yet. But I threw up to three innings in my GCL starts. I know they’ll monitor it."

Q. We know a lot about your fastball, but give us a sense for your repertoire beginning with that fastball and where it tops out.

A. "I’ve been running 92 to 95 with the fastball, hitting 96, but trying not to focus on velocity but throwing inside and out. My curveball’s coming along really well, and the change-up is, too. Everybody said I’d need to work on my change-up a lot and it’s been coming along."

Q. Your control was good last summer, which isn’t always the case for a guy your age, and with your velocity.

 A. "Yeah, I was real happy with that. I wanted to come out and throw strikes, and just kind of keep the ball in play. That was my goal, and I was really happy for my first year."

Q. Basketball and baseball — you had a choice. Has there been any second-guessing there?

 A. "No, I never second-guess my decisions. I made my decision to play baseball fulltime. I’ve been watching March Madness, of course. I followed the team that recruited me (Loyola Marymount), and it’s been fun to see, but I like where I’m at."

Q. Were other schools in the mix beyond Loyola Marymount?

A. "Yeah, schools where I could also play baseball and basketball: Cal-State Fullerton, San Francisco, St. Mary’s, Santa Clara, those kinds of West Coast schools."

Q. There’s a lifestyle change that comes with professional baseball. How has that cultural punch hit you?

A. "It was tough at first, just getting adjusted being away from home. But I think I made the adjustment pretty quickly. I got a lot of help from my dad. He played professional ball for a while, so he kind of helped me with the off-the-field stuff, the lifestyle and business ends."

Q. What do you like to do away from baseball?

A. "Play video games, hang out with teammates and friends. Whatever."

Q. Are you finding a comfortable retreat away from the game? These full days of playing baseball, working out, can be sapping.

A. "Yeah, it can be. But we’ve been able to balance our time pretty well. We’ve all been handling it well, I think."

Q. What has struck you about the Tigers organization?

A. "I really didn’t know much about the organization before I came here. I knew they develop pitchers the right way. Pitchers of my mold they have a knack for building them and getting them up to the big leagues. So I’m pretty excited about that."