The 2015 season represents a crossroads for the Detroit Tigers. After sporting one of the most dominant starting rotations in baseball for the past few seasons, the Tigers head into 2015 without Rick Porcello or 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. Justin Verlander is coming off a subpar year, and Anibal Sanchez battled a shoulder injury for large parts of the season. There is a lot more uncertainty than usual surrounding the Tigers' roster as we head into spring training.
This uncertainty doesn't stop at the rotation. There are a few players with guaranteed jobs in the bullpen, but there are several spots up for grabs. In particular, no one knows which left-handers will trot out of the bullpen during the early part of the 2015 season. Free agent signing Tom Gorzelanny seems to have the inside track on a roster spot, but others are not so certain. Blaine Hardy pitched well for most of the 2014 season, but faltered in September. Ian Krol struggled mightily in his first season in Detroit. Kyle Lobstein and Kyle Ryan may get a crack at the bullpen, and -- don't laugh -- Phil Coke is still a free agent.
Then there's Joe Mantiply. The soon-to-be 24-year-old left-hander impressed in his first full season of professional ball, working his way up to Double A by season's end. His performance has garnered a considerable amount of buzz from the local media despite lacking the high octane arms of some of his peers. While it would be a big jump to essentially go from Single A to the major leagues, Mantiply could force his way onto the Opening Day roster with a strong spring. Even if he gets optioned to begin the season, the crafty left-hander should get a long look for big league innings at some point in 2015.
Where did he come from?
Mantiply is one of those rare players who has been drafted three times. After turning down the New York Mets in 2009 and Philadelphia Phillies in 2012, the Tigers drafted and signed Mantiply in the 27th round of the 2013 amateur draft. A Virginia Tech product, Mantiply went 6-1 with a 2.85 ERA in 75 2/3 innings for the Hokies during his senior season. He spent most of his college career as a starter, where his strikeout-to-walk ratio hovered just above 2.00. His ERA improved in each of his four seasons in Blacksburg, but his senior year ended in heartbreak when the Hokies were eliminated in a home regional during the NCAA tournament.
After signing with the Tigers, Mantiply allowed a 2.04 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 35 1/3 innings in his professional debut. He made 12 starts for the Connecticut Tigers in 2013, but didn't work more than three innings in any outing (a common practice with recently drafted pitchers). The Tigers moved Mantiply to the bullpen for 2014. He spent most of the season at Single-A West Michigan, where he allowed a 2.41 ERA and 2.64 FIP in 71 relief innings. He earned a call-up to Double-A Erie at the end of the season, where he allowed five runs (four earned) in 10 1/3 innings. He continued to pitch well in the Arizona Fall League, allowing a 2.57 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 14 innings for the Glendale Desert Dogs.
Mantiply isn't necessarily a soft-tossing lefty, but he doesn't have the fastball velocity of Phil Coke and Ian Krol, who can work into the mid-90s at times. Mantiply tops out around 91-92 miles per hour, but will probably sit at 89-90 miles per hour, similar to Blaine Hardy. Tony Paul of the Detroit News gave a brief description of Mantiply's secondary pitches, including a solid changeup.
He's also got a plus change-up — that's actually been his best pitch for some time, dating to high school, which is rather interesting, considering how many pitchers spend years trying to master that one. (Hello, Jeremy Bonderman.) His fastball acts like a sinker. And he throws a slider, which is a work-in-progress pitch. (Hey, everybody has one!).
Paul continued to describe Mantiply's makeup and baseball IQ, both of which are big pluses for the young left-hander.
Meanwhile, his baseball acumen is absolutely through the roof. In other words, he knows which pitch to throw in every situation and which quadrant of the zone to throw it in, and that makes him particularly effective pitching inside. That's huge, because pitching inside effectively makes him almost as tough on right-handed hitters as he is on lefties, which will help Mantiply's case for a major league call-up, probably at some point soon. He's not your typical situation lefty, in other words.
The stuff isn't overly impressive, but Mantiply's delivery comes from a three-quarter arm slot, making him tougher on left-handers than righties. If he can develop more consistency with his breaking ball, Mantiply's deception and three-pitch arsenal could become an effective combination as a middle reliever or lefty specialist.
What should we expect from him?
While I like what I have read about Mantiply this year -- like most of you, I have not seen him pitch live -- I think the attention he has received this offseason is disproportionate to his chances of making the Opening Day roster. He has only pitched 10 1/3 career innings above Single A ball and is less than two years removed from pitching in college. His raw stuff isn't as good as other left-handers in the system, and outside reports from the Arizona Fall League were less impressed with him than what we've seen locally.
This doesn't mean that he won't have an impact, though. The Tigers seem to like what they have -- they would not have sent him to the Arizona Fall League otherwise -- but there are several players currently above Mantiply on the bullpen pecking order. Another solid season could lead to a call-up later in the year, but he is better served honing his craft (particularly that breaking ball) in the minor leagues in 2015. He could very well become a bullpen mainstay for years to come; just don't expect him to do so this April.