Erie, Pa — That was some tumble by the Erie SeaWolves.
Just as they were wrapping up a 41-16 romp during the Double A Eastern League’s second half, and getting ready for September’s playoffs, the party crashed as Erie got socked with a 2-9 stretch in late August and will watch Bowie make off with the Western Division playoff ticket.
What mattered in Erie didn’t matter as much at Comerica Park. The focus there is on when Erie’s slick stable of pitchers will be ready for prime-time work in Detroit.
And that day is inching closer for a cast of starters, and relievers.
And while last year’s No. 1 overall draft king, Casey Mize, is Erie’s headliner, others are probably closer to Detroit. And perhaps closer to reconstructing a Tigers pitching rotation.
“Put it this way,” Mike Rabelo, Erie’s manager, said last week while sizing up his SeaWolves arms. “I’d pay to watch ’em play.”
► Matt Manning, 21, 6-6, 215, 2.56 ERA, 0.98 WHIP: A nice way to become Eastern League Pitcher of the Year, which Manning last week was named, is to incinerate batters as Manning did this season in 133 innings: 93 hits and 148 strikeouts.
“Where do you want me to start?” Rabelo asked:
“He’s throwing 96, 98, and now he’s throwing change-ups in fastball counts — not only to left-hand hitters, but to right-handers.
“He’s got a pretty good feel for pitching.”
Manning might be the essence of good scouting and projecting. He was a first-round pick, ninth overall, in 2016 as the Tigers bet that an athlete who primarily was a basketball player better-profiled as a potential right-handed ace.
He had shown enough mound fury during his days at Sheldon High in Sacramento, California, to convince the Tigers an athlete of his size, with a low-mileage arm, could shoot skyward once he got to pro ball.
And that Manning has done.
“His command of the fastball is better and better, his change has really improved, and the curveball is still a plus pitch,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of player development. “He still needs more consistency. But he‘s 21 years old.”
Manning is averaging 10 strikeouts a game against 2.6 walks. If you’re looking for hits, look for another pitcher.
"The other thing is his physical development,” Littlefield said. “He came to us at 190 pounds, and now he’s at 220, and he still has that slender build. You just look at that frame, and while there’s not a goal to be the heaviest guy on the roster, you can see 20 more pounds on that guy in five years, where he’s 6-6, 240, and a real monster. Not just mentally will he improve going through those development years. Physically, he’s also got room to improve.
“This is exactly what the scouts were looking at.”
Best guess at a Detroit arrival: Probably early in 2021, perhaps later next year, once there has been a final tune-up at Triple A Toledo.
►Tarik Skubal, 22, 6-3, 215, 2.13 ERA, 1.02 WHIP: He is a left-hander, which historically means this is a pitcher who throws, at best, mid-90s.
“Electric,” Rabelo said. ”A lefty who throws 97, 98.”
“His fastball just doesn’t get squared-up,” said Mark Johnson, Erie’s pitching coach. “And he knows how to pitch.”
By the time Skubal has set up a hitter with his heater, here comes a cruel slider, or a change-up.
And that’s how, in nine starts at Double A, after a mid-season bump from high Single A, you rack up a preposterous 17.43 strikeouts per-nine-innings, which is what Skubal has been doing at Erie.
Opposing hitters are batting .166 against Skubal, even with an overstuffed BABIP (batted balls in play) average of .343.
By now, most know the Tigers in 2018 might have pulled off one of baseball’s all-time, ninth-round heists when they got Skubal from the University of Seattle a year after he had been shelved by Tommy John surgery.
“Thank god he was draft-eligible last year,” said Rabelo, making clear that the Tigers got him before other clubs caught onto what was emerging in Seattle.
“The way he’s going in those Double A starts, he’s off the charts,” Littlefield said. “And he dominated at A ball.”
Best guess on a Detroit arrival: As with Manning, it’s easier to project early 2021 than late 2020. But in him and Manning the Tigers quite likely have their next tandem of 1-2 starters.
►Alex Faedo, 23, 6-5, 230, 4.01 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 21 games: Faedo is another of the Tigers’ string of first-rounders, he having been snatched in 2017 from the University of Florida. He has a slider that can make hitters ponder a new vocation.
He struck out almost 10½ batters per nine in 2019 and walked only two. Only because of back spasms, which knocked him out of the season’s final weeks, was 2019 anything but a fist-bump for Faedo.
“He’s a ballplayer, a smart guy, and a pitch-maker — very effective,” Littlefield said. “He’s got that baseball gene (cousin Lenny Faedo played five seasons for the Twins) in the big leagues).
“His fastball is back up to higher levels — 92, 93, and it’s been as high as 96. Last year his velocity wasn’t as great, but it’s definitely up this year. And I think that issue’s now kind of behind us, which is good, because probably there was too much attention on that.
“We feel he’s going to be a good major-league starter. He’s going to be a pitch-maker who throws all three pitches for strikes.
“That’s going to be his calling card.”
Best guess on when Faedo hits Detroit: As early as next summer.
►Anthony Castro, 24, 6-2, 190, 4.40 ERA, 1.37 WHIP: There are games such as his Aug. 1 dandy against Binghamton when he threw seven innings, allowed a lone hit and no runs, struck out seven – and walked four.
And there are starts such as Thursday’s against Richmond when he worked 4⅓, was slammed for eight hits and five runs, while walking three and whiffing three.
“Nasty stuff, with a lot of movement,” Rabelo said. “He’s got a fastball that cuts and runs. And when it’s over the plate, it plays.”
There, of course, is not only Castro’s soft spot — it’s so often the crash-landing for too many pitchers whose high-velocity bullets simply don’t find enough of the strike zone.
Castro has walked 65 batters in 102⅓ innings in 2019. He has put away 116 on strikes, and has been popped for only 75 hits.
But those 65 walks are why he isn’t rounding into a pitcher who can today expect to work in the big leagues.
►Joey Wentz, 21, 6-5, 210, 2.10 ERA, 0.94 WHIP ERA (five starts, Erie): Wentz three years ago was a first-round pick by the Braves and was part of last month’s Tigers payoff in their Shane Greene trade.
He does not dazzle in the manner of Manning or Skubal, although few do. Wentz is more conventional.
But he can also be mean, as in a first-inning, three-pitch sequence last Monday against Richmond catcher Joey Bart, who 14 months earlier had been drafted by the Giants, second overall, after the Tigers snared Casey Mize.
Fastball at 93, change-up, and another fastball at 93, at the belt, on the inside black, and Bart was excused. Saturday, against Akron, Wentz struck out 10 in 5⅓ innings.
He might be considered more of a back-end starter, maybe mid-range, which is not to knock Wentz when rotations always must feature five pitchers of varying degrees of skill.
He knows what he’s doing on a pitcher’s mound. And that is why the Tigers insisted on him as part of the Greene deal.
“One thing you notice is he’s got enough velocity,” Littlefield said. “He’s bumping 94, sometimes maybe a little above that, with a deceptive change-up. There are a couple pitches there you like, at that age, at Double A.”
Rabelo agrees with Littlefield that 94 is there for Wentz’s fastball. The curveball could use more bite, but get in line there.
“He’s fit right in,” Rabelo said. “When that trade was made, the first thing they said about Wentz was: ‘great kid.’
“He’s a 21-year-old lefty who can pitch.”
Best guess on when he might hit Detroit: He’s another gent who will need a year marinating on the farm. But his stats through four minor-league seasons include a 1.17 WHIP and 9.6 strikeouts per game versus a few too many walks (3.5). If the walks come down, and a bit more mastery follows, Wentz will have helped make that Greene trade a potential plus for Detroit.
►Nolan Blackwood, 24, 6-5, 185, 1.82 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 39 games: This is one bullpen arm Erie has the best chance today of sending Detroit’s way.
Blackwood is a side-armer with a “cannonball sinker,” in the words of Rabelo.
The Tigers got him in August of last year when they sent Mike Fiers to the A’s in a waiver trade. The belief in Detroit’s front office then was that Blackwood would almost assuredly pitch in the big leagues, given his arm angle and the quality of pitches thrown.
“He’s had a real nice second half,” Littlefield said of a right-hander, and 14th-round pick by the A’s in 2016, who in 24 games after the All-Star break has a 1.18 ERA and 1.03 WHIP.
“He’s throwing harder down there (lower to mid-90s) than the normal side-armer.”
Erie has had, at times, a bullpen other teams didn’t care to meet in late innings, particularly during the SeaWolves’ 41-16 run.
Wladimir Pinto is only 21, has high-end stuff, and could be the best of the lot as he grows.
Alex Lange, who like Pinto is a right-hander, was part of the Cubs’ tariff in its July deal for Nick Castellanos. Lange is a one-time first-rounder who needs another pitch to go with his fastball and breaking ball.
And then there’s Drew Carlton, a 32nd-rounder from 2017 when he pitched for Florida State, and who has done superb work for the SeaWolves: 1.48 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 44 games, which includes 65 strikeouts in 67 innings.
“Works fast, throws strikes,” Littlefield said. “It’s the old adage: He’s not afraid. He’s got a little deception, and a little wiggle to that fastball.”
As always with pitchers, check back next season, when stories can be different, sometimes radically so.
But some of the above are shrewd bets to continue with their 2019 doings. And that, at some point, spells better times for a needy team in Detroit.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former reporter for The Detroit News