Detroit Tigers Top 20 Prospects: No. 5 Matt Manning

Matt Manning of the Detroit Tigers pitches during Spring Training. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Matt Manning of the Detroit Tigers pitches during Spring Training. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

Welcome to the first installment of the Motor City Bengals Top 20 Detroit Tigers prospects. The MCB staff has compiled our prospect lists and we will be releasing our consensus rankings, along with a breakdown of each player, in a series of articles in the coming days. Today, we look at number 5 on our list, Matt Manning.

Expectations are always high for top-ten draft picks, and Matt Manning hasn’t reached the majors yet, but his development has to be considered a win for the Detroit Tigers. He entered pro ball as a raw, athletic thrower with command and consistency issues, and three years later he was one of the most dominant strike throwers in minor league baseball. Now a consensus top-50 prospect in all of baseball, Manning was slowed by arm soreness last season, but he’s healthy now and poised to make his MLB debut in 2021.

Matt Manning Background

The son of former NBA player Rich Manning, the 6’6 Matt Manning excelled at both baseball and basketball as an amateur. He was committed to play both sports at Loyola Marymount University, but by the end of his junior season in high school it was clear his ceiling was higher on the diamond than on the hardwood. He took another step forward as a senior and the Detroit Tigers selected him 9th overall in the 2016 draft, signing him for just over $3.5 million.

Manning showed flashes of his future dominance in his first taste of pro ball, racking up 46 strikeouts against just 7 walks in 29.1 innings, but he was also surprisingly hittable, giving up 13 runs on 27 hits to rookie-level Gulf Coast League batters.

Some fans were slightly worried when the Tigers held Manning back in extended spring training in 2017, and then had him debut in the short-season New York-Penn League rather than Low-A. But Manning quickly proved too good for the level. He struck out 9 over 4.1 innings in his NYPL debut, and despite reports of fluctuating velocity and mechanical inconsistencies, he posted a 1.89 ERA over 33.1 innings.

The Tigers then promoted Matt Manning to class Low-A West Michigan for his final five outings of the 2017 season, and things were ugly at first. Midwest League batters tagged him for 11 earned runs in just 6.2 innings over his first three starts, but in his last two outings he threw 11 scoreless frames and struck out 15.

Manning’s 2018 season was his real breakout campaign. He began the year back in West Michigan and again showed some early wildness, allowing 9 earned runs and 12 walks in just 9.2 innings over his first three starts. But he gave up only 12 more earned runs over his next 46 innings, with 58 strikeouts against 16 walks.

Detroit promoted the 20-year-old Manning to class High-A Lakeland, and he had a stellar debut on the 4th of July, giving up just one hit and striking out nine over five shutout innings. He was named to the Futures Game, and he maintained a high level of performance over the next six weeks, with a 2.98 ERA over 51.1 innings in Lakeland.

Detroit promoted Matt Manning to Double-A Erie for his final two outings of 2018, and he had one great start and one rough start. He returned to the level in 2019 and was absolutely dominant, earning the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year award after going 11-5 with with a 2.56 ERA and 148 strikeouts to just 38 walks in 133.2 innings.

Manning saw some action in spring training last year, and he was ticketed for Triple-A Toledo before the world skidded to a halt. He likely would have made his MLB debut last summer, but he was shut down with a forearm strain. He’s healthy now, though, has reportedly added a new breaking ball with more horizontal movement, and seems likely to arrive in Detroit at some point this summer.

Matt Manning Strengths

Matt Manning shows many of the traits of a potential front-line starter. His fastball sits in the 92-95 mph range, he can ramp it up to 98, and his elite extension makes the pitch appear even faster to hitters. His 12-6 curveball is frequently a plus offering he can land up in the zone or bury in the dirt for swings and misses, and his changeup shows the potential to be at least average.

Manning is an excellent athlete who fields his position very well, and that athleticism also helps him repeat his delivery. He pounds the strike zone, and shows potential for above-average command.

Matt Manning Weaknesses

Manning’s fastball and curveball have been dominant in the minor leagues, but neither pitch shows the sort of spin rates typically associated with elevated strikeout totals at the MLB level. And when Manning has faced top-level competition, such as in the Futures Game or in spring training, he has struggled to miss bats without ramping up to the top of his velocity band. It’s certainly nice he has that option, but it may not work over the course of multiple innings.

Manning’s changeup is still inconsistent, and his new breaking ball is in its nascent stage. He says he’s using the same grip as his regular curveball, but throwing the pitch from a different arm slot. Big-league hitters are good at picking up things like that, so this new offering may not help much.

Our Take on Manning

We are still very high on Matt Manning, and can easily see a future where he becomes the true ace of the Tigers staff. He has the size and stuff to be a innings-eating workhorse, while his athleticism and impressive development so far give him a good chance to continue improving into his late-20s. Even if he doesn’t develop any further, Manning could likely carve out a role as a solid late-inning reliever.