Detroit Tigers' Matt Manning has his major league debut on his mind: 'I'm ready to go'

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Had the coronavirus not blocked Matt Manning's journey, he may have already reached the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers.

A strong 2019 performance in Double-A Erie moved the needle.

Last year's spring training, he thinks, pushed it further.

The right-hander assumed he would make his major league debut in 2020 after a tune-up in Triple-A Toledo. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shortened season, thus catapulting Manning to the alternate training site. He was shut down with a forearm strain in August.

"It was difficult," Manning said Thursday — his 23rd birthday — while also explaining he is back to full health and throwing with no restrictions. "It actually might have been a blessing for me. I moved some things around with my mechanics and was able to clean up my arm path."

Detroit Tigers pitcher Matt Manning throws during an intrasquad baseball game at Comerica Park, Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

General manager Al Avila and new manager AJ Hinch have alluded to Manning's arrival in 2021. And five years after being drafted No. 9 overall, Manning believes he is ready.

"I've done more this offseason than I ever have before," Manning said. "I'm ready to go. Every day has been very focused. I have one goal, and it's to get to the big leagues, and (then) pitch well there and win a World Series."

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The World Series dream probably won't happen immediately. Yet getting there has plenty to do with Manning, as well as fellow pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal.

Finding a steady starting rotation is Hinch's top priority.

"For us to do this right, we have to get the pitching right," Hinch said Tuesday. "I've never seen a team have success at this level, sustained success, without a good pitching staff. You can't win a game in the first inning, but you certainly feel like you can lose one by not having the right intensity, not having the right approach on the mound."

[ What Manning is doing to join Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal ]

Mize is the Tigers' No. 2 prospect, ranked by MLB Pipeline, followed by Manning at No. 3 and Skubal at No. 5. The trio were together at the alternate training site until August, when Mize and Skubal got called up to the majors.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Matt Manning walks to the mound for practice during summer camp at Comerica Park in Detroit, Tuesday, July 7, 2020.

Manning was left behind.

"It felt like a piece was missing," Manning said. "I hope that's how they feel. I know they're having fun, but when we're together, all three of us and with Alex (Faedo), we all feel comfortable. We're all happy."

Manning spent the 2019 season in Double-A Erie with Mize, Skubal and Faedo by his side. Also, Detroit's long-term goals rely on the young arms anchoring the big-league rotation.

Two of the top three pitching prospects have arrived, and Manning isn't far behind. Faedo underwent Tommy John surgery this December, so he won't make it up until at least the 2022 season.

[ How Alex Faedo, Joey Wentz are recovering from Tommy John surgery ]

Manning shouldn't be far behind Mize and Skubal on the field, either. Both struggled at times in a limited sample and need to grow through a full season. Mize registered a 6.99 ERA with 26 strikeouts and 13 walks in 28⅓ innings; Skubal finished with a 5.63 ERA, 37 strikeouts and 11 walks.

"I know how they throw and want to pitch to people, but it's also them learning the big-league game and learning what they can do up there," Manning said. "They're testing the waters about what they can and can't get away with."

From left, pitchers Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Casey Mize pose for a photo during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

Manning is throwing bullpens full-go in Lakeland, Florida, where he has a place just north of TigerTown. Safe to say, he won't have a problem making the Feb. 17 report date for pitchers and catchers.

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To make sure he capitalizes on his expected debut, Manning made changes to his arsenal this winter. Don't worry, his fastball still sits around 96 mph and maxes out at 100 mph, as he displayed last March in spring training.

Manning has tested fresh mechanics, allowing him to execute two different curveballs. One of them is a 12-to-6 curveball, the other, he said, moves like a slider and sweeps horizontally.

"It's the same grip, I'm just throwing it with a new arm slot," Manning said. "Everything with a new arm slot and a different wrist position."

And he's still working on his changeup.

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Manning has cruised through the minors, dominating every level. In 2019, he pitched 133⅔ innings in Double-A, earning a 2.83 ERA, 148 strikeouts and 38 walks in 24 starts. His next stop might be Triple-A Toledo, but he will reach the majors.

It's all but guaranteed to happen in 2021.

"I do want all the young pitching to be in the big leagues," Hinch said. "I want the young position players to get the at-bats that are needed for us to evaluate. But this is an accountability league, where you got to play well to stay here.

"This is not just a team you can come to and fill out a roster. That's not how we're going to operate."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.