Tigers' young arms light up Top 25 rankings

January 29th, 2021

knows the prospect rankings, and knows where he and his fellow Tigers pitching prospects stand in them. He knows all about the label of potential. He also knows that at some point, it needs to be translated into reality.

“It feels good,” Skubal said Thursday of the rankings, “but it doesn't really matter too much if you're not going out there and getting results on the field. It's cool to see, cool to read up on, but at the end of the day, it only matters what you do in between the lines.”

Few groups have experienced the attention that comes with those rankings like the young pitchers the Tigers have stockpiled over the last five years. They’re well represented on the latest MLB Pipeline Top 100 Prospect Rankings with Casey Mize (No. 11), Skubal (No. 24) and Matt Manning (No. 25). No other organization has three players in the top 25, let alone pitchers. Add in third baseman Spencer Torkelson (No. 3) and outfielder Riley Greene (No. 21), and Detroit has five of the top 25, the first time a team has accounted for that many of baseball's top 25 prospects since MLB.com began doing prospect rankings in 2004.

The pitchers have been climbing the list the last few years -- none more so than Skubal, a former ninth-round Draft pick who opened eyes with a rapid rise up the farm system in 2019. But the group is at the point now where the pitchers are about to graduate. Mize and Skubal made their Major League debuts in August and finished the season in Detroit’s rotation. A year after they gave Tigers fans a glimpse of the future in Spring Training, they’ll be back in Lakeland, Fla., trying to win rotation spots. Manning will likely crack the big leagues at some point this coming season.

For the trio, the wait to turn rankings into results is just about over. They probably won’t help the Tigers become instant contenders, but they should put the team in a good position once Torkelson and Greene make their way through the farm system to add offensive support.

“I have one goal, and that’s to get to the big leagues and pitch well there and win a World Series for the team,” Manning said in a video conference with reporters on Thursday, his 23rd birthday.

While the rankings are cool, Skubal is focused now on data coming from the various high-speed cameras and computers watching his pitches. The former Seattle University lefty returned to town last week to visit Driveline Baseball for some pitch design work. He first got into their concepts two offseasons ago when he was trying to refine his curveball, recommended by Tigers veteran Matthew Boyd. After his big league stint, Skubal wanted to work on his changeup.

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His splits from last season show why. While left-handed batters hit just 3-for-22 against him with no extra-base hits, right-handed hitters posted a .258 average (25-for-97) with nine home runs. Skubal's offspeed pitches could produce swings and misses, but they still got him hurt when hitters connected.

“My focus [at Driveline] was just the changeup. I really wanted to kind of figure that pitch out,” Skubal said. “We made some tweaks and flipped the grip a little bit, and I really like it. I’m very confident with it going forward.”

It took the better part of two long bullpen sessions to get it down, and Skubal left the facility frustrated after the first, but he feels like he eventually got it right. This progression, this ability to improve, has helped propel Skubal’s career beyond the strong recovery from his 2017 Tommy John surgery.

“I don’t want a changeup that looks completely different from my fastball,” he said, “because it would be a dead giveaway right out of the hand. I want things that look similar out of the hand, so we’d throw a fastball to get that on the Edgertronic [camera] and Rapsodo [machine], and then I’d throw a changeup and it looks the same. They play differently and they attack the plate from different angles and stuff like that, and that’s what you want.”

While Skubal was in Seattle, Manning was at the other end of the country in Lakeland, where he has spent most of his offseason training at the Tigers' facility. He was in line to join Skubal and Mize in Detroit at some point last summer, having made just as big of an impression in Spring Training and Summer Camp, but a right forearm strain at the club's alternate training site in Toledo, Ohio, led to an early end to his season. Instead of joining Mize and Skubal, his former Double-A Erie teammates, Manning watched their debuts from afar, following pitch by pitch and getting into their minds.

“When they were up there and I was at the alternate site, it felt like a piece was missing,” Manning said. “And I hope that’s how they feel when I get there. I know they’re having fun, but we know when we’re together, all three of us and [fellow prospect] Alex [Faedo], we all feel comfortable and we’re all happy.”

Manning’s time is coming. It won’t be at the start of the season, barring something crazy, but it should be this year. The Tigers’ need to cover innings as they move from last year’s 60-game season to 162 games makes Manning a part of the short-term solution as well as long-term.

Manning’s training has included a bit of everything, from running the steps at Joker Marchant Stadium with Tigers strength and conditioning coordinator Steve Chase to swimming at a nearby pool. He even started taking yoga classes for flexibility.

Manning also worked on his pitching mechanics, tweaking his arm slot and adding a second version of his curveball, his breaking pitch of choice. It was a continuation of the work he put in at Toledo last summer.

“I’ve definitely changed some things up,” Manning said.

The second curveball, with a little more horizontal movement compared to his first one, should help him against big league hitters. Now he just has to get there.

“Right now it’s just getting some reps in, getting good and then just waiting for my chance,” Manning said. “Wherever I’m at, I’m going to pitch as well as I can, and I’m going to leave it up to our front office to make those decisions.”

The way the Tigers’ pitching prospects are progressing, it shouldn’t take long.