Mar. 3—LAKELAND, Fla. — Don't tell Matt Manning he's not making the team out of spring. He ain't buying it.
"I'm pitching like I'm trying to make the team out of spring," Manning said. "They talk about how they're going to take the best 26 players. I'm going to try to be one of those top 26. That's my goal. That's my focus every day."
He certainly looked sharp in his spring debut, pitching two scoreless innings in the Tigers' 4-2 Grapefruit League loss to the Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium. He gave up a single to Travis Jankowski, but promptly erased him with a 4-6-3 double-play.
He ended his day making a bare-handed stab of a chopped ground ball and then firing a missile to first base to get Didi Gregorius.
"He's such an athlete out there, it was good to see it on the last play," manager A.J. Hinch said. "His stuff is really exciting, but the first time out, I was interested to see if he was anxious or if he'd be jumping off the rubber and trying to throw a billion miles per hour.
"And he was pretty calm, cool and collected. He made some good pitches and was all over the strike zone. It was a positive first step."
Manning, 23, is the No.3-ranked prospect in the Tigers organization (MLBPipeline) and No. 25 in baseball. After dominating Double-A hitters in 2019, he was virtually shut down last year — partially because of no minor league season, but also a forearm injury that nixed his work at the alternate site.
From all indications, though, it was far from a wasted year. He's been a Wow guy this spring. His mechanics, his delivery, are as smooth and fluid as they've ever been and he's now solidified his secondary pitches with a harder, tighter slider to go along with his slower, vertical-breaking curveball.
"I put in so much work," Manning said. "I knew where I needed to be and right now I'm at the point to where I can trust my mechanics and not think about it too much. They're smooth enough to where I'm just focusing on 60 feet, 6 inches in front of me.
"I'm just mad it took this long to figure out."
Count Miguel Cabrera among those who have been wowed. Cabrera, who made his spring debut Wednesday (strikeout, double-play ground out), has faced Manning twice in live batting practice and gave him hat-tips both times.
"Those are some trained eyes," Manning said. "He's seen a lot of pitchers. Any feedback he gives me I take and kind of run with."
His arm isn't fully built up yet, but his fastball did hit 95 on Wednesday. Mostly it sat at 92-93. He used both his curveball and slider effectively. Two of his three swings-and-misses were with the curve. He got through the two innings in 24 pitches, 16 strikes.
Having not pitched a single inning last year makes winning a roster spot problematic for Manning. But, the track he's on, it won't be long before he makes his big-league debut this season. The wait has been rough on him, especially seeing two of his fellow pitching prospects — Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, both drafted two years after he was — get the call.
"First and foremost, we have to get his attention back on the field and onto the things he can control," Hinch said. "His name is mentioned a lot and I hope he reads it less and goes to work on the back fields more. And I am sure he is.
"Because just making it isn't going to be good enough. He's going to get an opportunity, he's earned that. But he's got to stay away from his press clippings and just stay focused on the field."