On Seeing (And Not Seeing) Sean Manaea

On Sunday afternoon, I was working on a piece about why the trade market doesn’t heat up until July, and per habit, I chose a game to have on in the background while I work. I usually flip between them, focusing on where the action is based on the score and runners on base, but with the day just starting, I began with Oakland at New York. The A’s had Sean Manaea on the mound, which made me think about his 2013 spring, and a wasted trip to Normal, Illinois.

It’s easy to forget that Manaea entered that spring as a candidate for the top pick in the draft. He was a six-foot-five, physical left-hander who entered Indiana State with a mid-80s fastball but suddenly was up to 98 mph in the Cape Cod League two years later. There, he was universally seen as the best prospect during the 2012 season, putting up a 1.22 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 51.2 innings and allowing just 21 hits and seven walks.

Manaea was living up to expectations early that spring, but things took a turn for the worse on March 15 in a game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Manaea couldn’t find a comfortable landing spot for his front foot and irritated his right hip. The injury would affect him for the remainder of the season; he missed starts and at times was scratched at the last moment. When he did pitch, he performed quite well, but the stuff was also down, and considerably so at times. Figuring out where he would (and more importantly should) go in the draft was becoming the biggest challenge of the tear.

The Missouri Valley Conference Tournament was set to begin on Tuesday, April 20 at Duffy Bass Field in Normal, Illinois, on the campus of Illinois State University. Indiana State would take on Creighton in the first game, with first pitch at 10:00 AM and Manaea scheduled to pitch. It was quite possibly the last chance to see him before making a multi-million dollar decision on the player, and I was asked to attend.

I had already seen Manaea that spring and on that very mound; a month before, he pitched in the first game of a Saturday doubleheader against the Redbirds. It was a mixed bag of a look, as he struck out nine over 5.1 innings but allowed four runs on six hits and showed velocity that varied from the upper 80s to the low 90s. Even at those speeds, he was untouchable at times, and I noted the day as the first time I heard the term “invisible fastball.” There was just something about the pitch, in terms of location, shape and deception, that allowed it to play up considerably.

The early start time on that Tuesday required a pre-7:00 AM alarm. The drive wasn’t too bad, at a little under two hours, and 96 of the 116 miles are a monotonous south-bound stretch on the highway through repetitive farmland. The parking lot was lightly populated upon arrival; I flashed a scout badge and entered the stadium.

There were more scouts than paying fans in the park. The home team wasn’t scheduled to play until the fourth game of the day, and other than some friends and family from the two squads, the stadium would have been barren if not for the presence of those who had attended for work purposes, who turned up in droves. It was a lot of heat, and it was big heat at that, including some scouting directors and even a handful of assistant general managers in the house, hoping to get one last good look at the draft’s biggest mystery man. I spoke to many who had flown into O’Hare or Midway the night before, slept at an airport hotel, and woke up extra early to drive to the central part of the state. Most had another flight planned for that afternoon or evening, heading off to a target conference tournament that would at least offer more quantity and, as it turned out on that morning, quality as well.

Early in the nine o’clock hour, Manaea began to loosen on the field and do some light throwing. Scouts continued to socialize, discussing what they had seen and where they had been; impromptu mock drafts were flying fast and furious. The group oozed toward the Indiana State bullpen down the left field line as Manaea began to warm up for the game. He finished his tosses and headed to the dugout, and the scouts headed back to their prime positions behind home plate, their seats saved by their bags; I was in the back row behind home plate, but dead center.

Indiana State was the away club for the game and hit first, going quietly. After spending the first half of the inning looking at their phones or continuing to socialize, the scouts went to business. Batteries were loaded into radar guns, cameras were clamped to seat backs, and the buzz grew silent. It was time to go to work.

Manaea walked out to the mound, kicked around his landing spot, and began his warmup pitches. His first couple of offerings were thrown at well below full effort, per usual. Then he suddenly took the throw back from the catcher, walked off the mound, and looked toward the dugout. Out came the trainer, and shortly thereafter, he left the field with Manaea in tow.

Just as quickly, nearly half of the scouts in attendance got up and headed to their cars, most having wasted a flight, a hotel room, a rental car and much of the day and who were now hoping to catch an earlier flight to another tournament. I grumbled enough about having to wake up at 6:45, but at least the two-hour drive in front of me ended at my home as opposed to an airport.

Because he warmed up in the game, Manaea shows up in the box score with zero innings and zero batters faced. It would later be explained that he left the game with shoulder issues, leaving teams more confused than ever as to what to do with his magnet in their war room.

After his 2012 summer explosion in the Cape Cod League and ascension toward the top of most pre-season draft boards, Manaea became a Scott Boras client. Despite a spring that was filled with missed weekends and highly fluctuating stuff, he finished his junior year with a 1.47 ERA and 93 strikeouts against just 49 hits allowed in 73.1 innings. Boras and his camp made it clear to teams that Manaea expected a bonus among the top players in the draft or he would return to school for his senior year, where a healthy season would get him that same money, only delayed by 12 months. Teams knew it wasn’t a bluff; just the year prior, Boras guided Mark Appel back to Stanford after he failed to come to an agreement with the Pirates as the No. 8 selection in 2012. That said, Appel was healthy for his junior year, and Manaea was far from it. There were lingering questions about the severity of his hip issues, and after leaving his final game of the year with arm issues before throwing an official pitch, it was hard to see anyone paying the freight.

June arrived quickly, and the first surprise selection of the draft came with the No. 8 pick, when the Royals chose Stephen F. Austin infielder Hunter Dozier. Teams that liked Dozier saw him as more of a late first rounder; most had him in more of the 30–50 range in terms of overall talent. It quickly become known that he had agreed to a $2.2 million bonus, nearly $1 million below slot. It was clear that Kansas City would be doing something aggressive with its competitive balance pick at No. 34.

The rest of the first round went mostly by the book, but one name absent from the selections was Manaea’s. It looked like he just might go back to school. There was some nervous talk in the Astros’ draft room of taking Manaea at 40 and seeing what happened. But at 34, the Royals showed their hand and selected him; ten days later, he signed for a bonus just north of $3.5 million, the fifth highest in the draft. The Royals got a risky but potential top talent at 34, and the Boras client got his money. Along with the signing, the Royals announced that Manaea’s shoulder was fine, but that his hip would require labrum surgery that would delay his professional debut until 2014.

It turned out to be a fruitful pick; no pitcher selected among the first ten rounds of the 2013 draft has produced more WAR. But watching Manaea pitch and pitch well on Sunday afternoon in New York was a fun reminder of a long and fruitless drive eight years ago, and more importantly a valuable reminder of how hard it is to deal with uncertainty in the draft.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

As a Royals fan, I remember being really excited when the Royals #8 pick came up. I really wanted Hunter Renfroe, so when I heard Selig say “with the #8 pick, the Kansas City Royals select Hunter…” I jumped out of my seat and cheered.

They took the Hunter I wasn’t expected but it worked out for the better probably (even if Manaea never pitched for the Royals).

2 years ago
Reply to  Shauncore

Manaea was the key to the Zobrist trade – I think that worked out fantastically for the Royals.