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Toolshed: Manning happy away from hoops
Tigers' top prospect ready to flourish in his first full season on mound
01/06/2017 11:00 AM ET
Matt Manning posted a 1.16 WHIP over 29 1/3 innings during his first professional season. (Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)

The Loyola Marymount men's basketball team hosts Santa Clara this Saturday in a battle between West Coast Conference foes. Matt Manning could've been suiting up for the Lions in that game, and given his talents as a 1,000-point scorer in high school and his pedigree as the son of former NBA player Rich Manning and brother of Air Force forward Ryan Manning, there's a chance Manning would've been a solid contributor as well, even as a freshman.

Instead, he'll travel to Lakeland, Florida, to begin preparations for his first full Minor League season, and the 6-foot-6 hurler whom the Tigers selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2016 Draft will do so as the top prospect in the Detroit system and No. 66 prospect in all of baseball.

In other words, don't expect him to have a basketball itch any time soon.

"I still watch college basketball a little bit and see all the teams that recruited me for that," said Manning, who noted that he would've played both sports in college. "But every time I think about all that baseball has, I get a better feeling, a better vibe about being in the dugout every day."

Those feelings are also boosted by Manning's promising future.

By his own admission, the right-hander didn't take pitching seriously until the summer before his junior year in high school. Then he hit a major growth spurt, and while he didn't reach the heights of his 6-foot-11 father, the added inches did wonders for his velocity as he started to hit the upper-80's with his fastball. That winter, he verbally committed to Loyola Marymount, but by the spring of his senior season, it became clear he was destined for the diamond. As he continued to fill out, the Sacramento native started to throw in the mid-90's and showed signs of a promising curve as an 18-year-old. He finished his final season at Sheldon High School with a 1.91 ERA, 77 strikeouts and a .120 batting average-against in 40 1/3 innings.

You don't produce those type of results without the stuff that makes scouts take notice, and with his size, projectability and clean delivery, it was clear he had a solid chance to be among the first high school pitchers chosen in the 2016 Draft as MLB.com ranked Manning as its No. 11 Draft prospect. But it wasn't until Manning first got into direct workouts with Major League teams, standing on Major League mounds in Major League parks, that he figured out just how high he could go.

"It was after that Tigers workout that I knew I had a chance to be top 10," he said. "I thought it'd be somewhere in the teens maybe, but if things fell into the right place, I knew after Comerica Park that that could be the right spot for me. It was really cool and gave me the feeling that I knew what to do with my life. They could develop me and make it so I can pitch on that mound again."

The Tigers obviously liked what they saw, too.

"We just let him pitch his game and throw about 30 to 35 pitches," said Detroit's Minor League pitching coordinator, A.J. Sager. "With these things, you get them on a big stage in front of a whole lot of eyes and see what they can do. For an 18-year-old kid, he handled that atmosphere really well. First, you see the size and the talent. But second, you see how he handled that atmosphere. He basically got off the plane, drove straight to the ballpark and pitched. He was basically set up for failure. But we saw the arm strength, the big size, the clean delivery, all things you can dream on."

The Tigers made Manning the third high school righty taken in the Draft, behind Ian Anderson (No. 3, Braves) and Riley Pint (No. 4, Rockies), and signed him to a slot-level $3,505,800 bonus on June 23. The promise of such a bonus early on wasn't the only factor that led Manning to choose baseball over a collegiate life as a two-sport athlete, but it certainly didn't hurt.

"It was never only about the money, but it played a factor," he said. "Once I knew there was going to be a scholarship plan in there too, that kind of sealed it. But the main thing is that I've always been confident in my abilities and wanted a chance to show what I can do."

Manning did just that in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last summer. The Tigers allowed him to make 10 starts at the complex level but held him back from going more than three innings in any of those outings. He finished with an impressive 46/7 K/BB ratio through 29 1/3 innings but encountered some growing pains with a 3.99 ERA.

Sager said the organization noticed how Manning would falter in that third frame, and the numbers bear that out with a 2.70 ERA in the first and second innings and a 6.75 ERA in the third. Part of that could have been fatigue from a recent high schooler who wasn't used to pitching that often on the hot backfields of Florida, but by Manning's own admission, it could be that batters had a better idea of his fastball upon second looks.

"There are the things they always talk about with repeating delivery -- getting a consistent arm slot, moving the fastball to both sides, and for me, turning my curveball from an over pitch to a putout pitch," Manning said. "But those are tools I already have. My biggest problem was I couldn't overpower guys with my fastball like I used to in high school. They're too good for that at the professional level. You need to get them off the fastball, so they can't put a barrel on it even when it's coming. That's something I needed to learn this summer."

Manning hasn't gotten his second chance to put that lesson into practice in a Minor League atmosphere yet, but the Tigers are encouraged, based on his background, that the adjustments will be coming.

"It's a really big thing because you don't find many legitimate two-sport athletes any more," Sager said. "I like that different sports teach you different things. From an athleticism side, we find 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 pitchers at that age, they can be gangly. That couldn't be further from the truth with him. He's got the footwork and the timing down. But the other important thing is he applies the things he hears. There aren't many things we've had to tell him, but the little adjustments, he can apply them quicker because he's been hearing them from so many places for so long."

Given that it's only January, Sager declined to speculate on where the organization plans to send Manning to begin the 2017 season, but he noted they would take into account his ability to be challenged as well as his ability to assess where he best belongs. Detroit sent 2015 first-rounder Beau Burrows to Class A West Michigan for his first full season after high school, allowing him to throw 97 innings in the Midwest League. That seems like a solid road map for Manning as well with perhaps even a few more frames tacked on, given the Tigers' confidence in the cleanliness of his delivery.

Manning has set a goal of West Michigan to start 2017 and Class A Advanced Lakeland to end it. He'll have a few months to show he can handle an in-season promotion, but before that, he'll have to prove in mini-camps and Spring Training that he's ready for a full-season affiliate. He'll do so as a top prospect and the big man on the Minor League complex, rather than a college freshman pushing for minutes on the hardwood. That's OK by him.

"I have to prove I'm going to be an everyday guy because that's what I like about this sport," Manning said. "I want to show I'm a good pitcher and teammate who's not just playing for myself and that I can be another good Tigers pitcher. That's what I'm here for."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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