ESPN Insider Keith Law released the first 20 of his top 100 prospects in baseball for the 2017 season on Monday. The Detroit Tigers were a little better represented than we expected. Right-handed pitcher Matt Manning, the Tigers’ first round pick in the 2016 draft, checks in at No. 82. Manning was no surprise, but left fielder Christin Stewart also made the cut, with Law ranking him 92nd overall. The Tigers selected the power-hitting outfielder in the supplemental round of the 2015 MLB draft.
While placing two players in the top 100 on any of these lists is no great coup for the Tigers, it’s a glimmer of hope for a farm system that has been largely panned in recent years. It is not yet an indication of a major turnaround, however. Both Manning and Stewart were recent first round picks. Manning, at least, largely finds himself on this list for that same potential flashed in high school and his dominant stint in rookie ball. Stewart, on the other hand, was a standout college hitter, and his progress through the lower minors has been solid but unspectacular. Both have simply lived up to expectations so far rather than exceeding them.
Law did have a few interesting takeaways in his report. In particular, he expresses less optimism about Manning’s breaking ball than other evaluators have. He also notes some mechanical changes he feels Manning will need as he progresses.
Manning’s one plus pitch is his 92-98 mph fastball, which is particularly good when gets on top of it from his 6-foot-frame, although he doesn’t get there consistently yet. He has a breaking ball that works against bad hitters, but it’s a spike curveball that he probably won’t command and isn’t that sharp; he’d be better off with a true curve or slider
Manning throws from a low three-quarters arm slot. While pitchers can be effective that way — particularly with the fastball — it is tougher to get depth on a breaking ball type from that arm position. Whether a real change is in the offing will depend on how the Tigers envision the finished product. If Manning produces a high spin rate, he is probably better off throwing from a higher arm angle to produce more backspin with a four-seam fastball. If not, he is probably destined to be more of a sinkerballer with a slurvy breaking pitch.
It’s worth remembering that other reports have expressed more enthusiasm than Law for Manning’s curveball. Several evaluations have described it as flashing plus potential. Law’s impressions strike a more cautionary note. At such an early stage of development, it’s common for reports to be as inconsistent as their subjects.
Stewart, as a former college player, should have a more advanced approach than your average power prospect in the lower minors. Law sees that in Stewart, but with a few caveats.
Stewart has a much shorter swing than you’d expect if you looked at his stat line first, getting the bat to the zone quickly with a little drift out over his front side that might cause some trouble when he faces pitchers who can locate their off-speed stuff, but he has an idea of the strike zone and continues to work on pitch selection.
There’s much more over at ESPN, though behind the Insider paywall. Like most, Law is skeptical of Stewart’s ability to become an average defender. However, the power potential and ability to draw walks are enticing. Stewart’s first stint at Double-A in 2016 went well. Continuing to develop his approach against higher caliber pitchers with multiple plus offerings will be the test in 2017. If Stewart can sustain his success, he’ll find his way to Triple-A Toledo sooner than later.
The Tigers’ farm system certainly isn’t wowing anyone, but it’s good to see a vote of confidence for Stewart, especially. Manning is a long way away, with a far wider range of potential outcomes. Any high school pitcher with that type of velocity and advanced control is going to excite observers on potential alone. As an advanced hitter, Stewart is closer to a done deal. It’s a positive sign that Law concurs with most evaluations, which give the young left fielder a solid shot to be a major league contributor in the near future.