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The Road to The Show™: Matt Manning

2016 first-rounder could be gem of Tigers' pitching posse
Right-hander Matt Manning has allowed only 16 homers over 331 2/3 innings in four Minor League seasons. (Paul Sancya/AP)
November 16, 2020

Each week, profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken to reach the brink of realizing his Major League dream. Here's a look at Detroit Tigers right-hander Matt Manning. For more player journeys on The Road to The Show, click here.

Each week, profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken to reach the brink of realizing his Major League dream. Here's a look at Detroit Tigers right-hander Matt Manning. For more player journeys on The Road to The Show, click here.

The Tigers selected right-handed pitchers with their top pick in four straight Drafts from 2015-18. Casey Mize, who went first overall in 2018, has gotten the bulk of the attention and already has reached the Majors. But the best of the bunch still could turn out to be 6-foot-6 Matt Manning, the ninth overall pick in 2016.

The son of former NBA player Rich Manning, Matt played baseball and basketball at Sheldon High School in Sacramento, California, and was even less experienced on the mound than the average prep school pitcher when selected by Detroit. The Tigers viewed him as a long-term project, but Manning's progress has brought him to the brink of the Majors quite rapidly. Had the 2020 season gone differently, he could well have made his big league debut at age 22.

"He's a really nice looking pitcher," then-Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire told after seeing Manning pitch as Summer Camp got underway in July. "He threw a couple of curveballs, and as I did when I was a player, I buckled from behind. So he must have pretty good stuff to buckle a veteran like me."

After signing for just under $4 million in 2016, Manning immediately demonstrated his potential in 10 brief Rookie-level Gulf Coast League appearances that summer, fanning 46 while walking seven over 29 1/3 innings. A stint the following summer with Class A Short Season Connecticut in the New York-Penn League was less overpowering -- he struck out 36 in 33 1/3 frames -- but was more successful overall as he posted a 1.89 ERA in nine starts.

Manning got his first taste of full-season ball late in 2017 after a promotion to Class A West Michigan in the Midwest League, where he experienced a rare bout of wildness. In five starts for the Whitecaps, he held opponents to a .209 average but issued 11 walks in 17 2/3 innings.

Manning's first full season in 2018 was his first real breakthrough. After starting the year back in West Michigan, he quickly earned a promotion to Class A Advanced Lakeland and the first of two invitations to the All-Star Futures Game. With Lakeland, he held Florida State League foes to a .176 average in nine starts and received a late-season assignment to Double-A Erie. At age 20, he was more than four years younger than the average Eastern League player. Manning posted a 3.29 ERA overall at his three 2018 stops and struck out 154 batters over 117 2/3 innings. The "project" was moving along much more quickly than anyone anticipated.

Manning headed into the 2019 campaign as's No. 52 overall prospect. For once, he spent the whole season in one place -- Erie -- and turned in a magnificent performance. The big righty went 11-5 with a 2.56 ERA in 24 starts for the SeaWolves. While his strikeout rate dropped to "only" 9.97 per nine innings, he cut his walk rate from 3.9 in 2018 to 2.6. The Eastern League batted just .192 against him and he posted a career-best 0.98 WHIP. All together, it earned him mid- and postseason All-Star nods and the Eastern League's Pitcher of the Year award.

The lost 2020 season was full of questions and opportunities for Manning. The No. 24 overall prospect by this point, he'd more than earned an assignment to Triple-A, if not a chance to compete for a spot in the Majors. The Tigers, however, have the pleasant problem of a logjam of top-level pitchers -- Mize, lefty Tarik Skubal, 2015 first-rounder Beau Burrows and 2017 first-rounder Alex Faedo also were on the brink of the Majors. (The first three did, indeed, debut in Detroit this year.) With the Tigers not quite ready to compete for a playoff spot, there was no need to rush Manning and not much space for him.

In any event, Manning spent the summer at Detroit's alternate training site in Toledo and was shut down in late August after suffering a right forearm strain, from which he's already fully recovered.

"It was just a mild strain in my forearm. It wasn't anything too serious," he told "Like I said, if it was a normal season, the recovery time would've been enough to where I would probably miss a few weeks of starts and then would have been able to get back out there."

Now the No. 20 prospect in the game -- No. 3 on the Tigers behind Mize and another top overall Draft pick, slugger Spencer Torkelson -- Manning has all the tools to succeed when baseball fully resumes. His fastball easily reaches the low- to mid-90s, his best out pitch is the hammer curve that buckled Gardenhire's legs just watching, and he's developing a changeup that also could become above-average. A lot of work has gone into repeating his delivery so every offering starts out looking the same to hitters. And behind it all is the easy athleticism that allowed him to make this play in the Futures Game last year. Look for it at Comerica Park next season.

John Parker is an editor for