MESA, Ariz. -- On the same day that lefty Rich Hill, the biggest free-agent investment the Oakland Athletics added to their rotation during the offseason, was making a minor-league start while trying to iron out his latest bout of what Cubs fans might suggest is a case of career-long wildness, in their A-game the A’s trotted out one of their top pitching prospects, power southpaw Sean Manaea, to face the White Sox.
Setting aside the question of service-time manipulation that almost every prospect has to accept as a matter of course, Manaea might not have much of a window to make the team right off the bat. But starts like Sunday’s weren’t necessarily about that so much as they’re about providing exposure and generating experience while the A’s get a sense of how soon their dividend from last summer’s deal with the Royals to send Ben Zobrist to Kansas City will be ready. Before the game, manager Bob Melvin offered that Manaea’s adaptability has already proven itself as an asset.
“Last game, he really didn’t have a breaking ball at all. He came in in relief -- which he’s not used to doing -- and he basically pitched on fastball-changeup and had success doing it,” Melvin observed. “You find out a lot about yourself when you’re a young kid and you’re here, first taste of big-league camp, and one of your pitches isn’t working, and you’re able to get by, have some success with what maybe is your third-best pitch.”
What Melvin perhaps didn’t know was that his comments would prove prophetic, as on Sunday Manaea again had to adapt and adjust quickly in-game after giving up a first-inning blast to White Sox first baseman Jerry Sands.
“There was a lot of adjustments that I made today. The first inning, I was trying to aim the ball instead of throwing it,” Manaea said, before describing the penalty of not locating his fastball as well as he wanted on Sands' home run. “Fastball in, just didn’t get it in enough, so it was more like right down the middle.
“Some of it, I was noticing was like how I was holding the curve, the changeup, the slider, it just didn’t feel right at the beginning of the game,” Manaea said. “On the mental side I wasn’t really throwing it, I was trying to aim it and just hoping it would get there.”
“[It’s] very difficult for young pitchers to be able to make adjustments like that, to think their way through games when they’re trying to impress; it was good to see,” Melvin said after the A's 6-2 defeat. “We’re getting a better handle on Sean when he doesn’t have whatever he doesn’t have working at a particular time. Today it was pitching in, didn’t have his breaking ball, but he was able to do some things differently to get by. When you have a 95 mph fastball that moves and plays a little better than the velocity, it’s a nice weapon to have.”
It’s one that’s hard to overlook, given Manaea’s upside as a front-end rotation regular and his likely arrival on the big-league roster at some point during the 2016 season. The A’s options beyond staff ace Sonny Gray number righties Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt (all additions from the roster makeover before last season). And then there’s Hill, who threw five innings in his minor league start, walking two, hitting three batters and striking out five. Eventually, veteran righty Henderson Alvarez will enter the rotation picture, but he’s still rehabbing his right shoulder following surgery last year. And journeyman Felix Doubront is also at the ready, as he's quite capable of stepping in from a swing role.
However, beyond Gray, none has the same upside as Manaea. His combination of command and swing-and-miss stuff earned him a ranking as the 59th-best prospect in baseball from Keith Law. More than anything, Manaea needs repetition and innings, having missed big chunks of time to abdomen, groin and hip injuries that have limited him to 196 pro innings since he was drafted in the first round (34th overall) by the Royals in 2013. But it’s the combination of stuff and his ability to adapt and adjust that’s creating an expanded opportunity in Arizona to show what he can do.
“We want to take a hard look at him here, we feel like he’s ready for it,” Melvin said. “And Doubront too -- we’ve got quite a few starters we feel like, at any point of time, we feel they could be in our rotation. Certainly Manaea at some time, but we do have some depth there, too. But this is our guy, as far as prospects go on the pitching end of it. He’s our No. 1 guy.”
“Obviously, I want to be with the team throughout the season, that’s the ultimate goal for me,” Manaea said.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.