You almost want to tap Sean Manaea on the shoulder, politely, and remind him to look both ways before crossing.
There's a flood of traffic heading his way now, beginning this Friday at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, when he pitches against Minnesota in front of a full house of professional evaluators. As the weeks tick down to the MLB draft in June, more of those evaluators will come to critique every inch of Manaea's 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame, to look for reasons not to like him, and you wonder, by his tone and demeanor, if he's oblivious to how intense the examination will be.
"Yeah, I threw my bullpen today and just, uh, had a chillax day," the Indiana State left-hander said after practice two days before his scheduled start against Minnesota.
"Chillax" is an apt description of Manaea, and it would make some sense if he really was oblivious to the deluge of attention that will soon wash over the projected high-first-round pick in full force.
He grew up in Wanatah, Ind. -- a quiet place "surrounded by corn," he said -- with a Samoan father who served in Vietnam before settling in Indiana and grinding in the steel mills, and an American mother who spent her working years clocking hours in an aluminum-can factory, among other jobs.
Manaea loves baseball and has always been pretty good at it, but he was very raw as a high school player, and there were never any professional promises, of course. The big leagues were a dream, sure, a flickering light somewhere out there in a youthful realm of possibility. But in Wanatah, you do what Manaea's father, Faaloloi, and mother, Opal, did -- you work and enjoy your family and then work a little more. Some way, something good will turn out. It's the deepest shade of blue-collar stories.
But Manaea is self-aware; he's not oblivious to the stage he's stepping on this spring. It just feels that way because of his personality and the nonchalance with which he describes his personal life and baseball career.
"He's a pretty happy-go-lucky guy," Indiana State pitching coach Tyler Herbst said. "He's not that fierce warrior every day of the week."
Herbst didn't really know what he was getting in Manaea three years ago. He knew the Sycamores had a chance to get a talented kid, but Manaea was nothing like he is now. He had a big frame and a good arm, but he didn't have great command of his fastball or even one reliable secondary pitch. He might as well have come with an instruction manual.
Some schools passed on him because of that -- the lack of certainty surrounding his talents -- and other schools passed on Manaea because of his grades and the fear he wasn't committed enough to stay eligible at a big university.
"School just wasn't a high priority for him," Herbst said. "He didn't work at it. But [assistant coach Brian] Smiley saw him at a showcase and said we should keep an eye on him, and he's a guy we could have a chance to get. So we took a flier on a talented left-hander and hoped he'd get better in the classroom, and he did. He's been low-maintenance ever since."
It took Manaea until his senior year of high school -- almost too late in the recruiting cycle -- to understand the non-baseball responsibilities that come with chasing his baseball dream. He says his high school grades were due to pure laziness. He chose naps or video games before he chose homework. It was teenager stuff, not an actual character flaw.
So when he got to campus, got involved in the academic counseling program and adjusted relatively quickly, it wasn't a surprise. That pseudo-hurdle had been cleared, and now Herbst had a toy to play with. He showed Manaea a slider, and that pitch has continued to improve over the past two seasons. Then at the end of his sophomore season, when Manaea was searching for a third pitch, he asked roommate and fellow southpaw Tyler Pazik to show him his split-change grip. It was the first changeup grip that felt natural to him.
Manaea now had three legitimate weapons to take to the Cape Cod League, and his draft stock boomed. A mid-to-upper 90s fastball, a wipeout slider, a diving split-changeup -- the whole package peaked at the perfect time in the perfect place, as Manaea struck out 85 hitters in 57 1/3 innings last summer to put himself next to Stanford right-hander Mark Appel as the early leaders of the No. 1 overall discussion for the 2013 draft.
That buzz followed Manaea back to Terre Haute for his junior season. As the spotlight brightens, as the eager eyes of evaluators flock to Minneapolis this Friday, he continues to stay in his own world.
"When I pitch, inside I just feel chill," Manaea said. "I get a few songs in my head, and in between pitches, when I'm getting the ball back, I will sing those songs to myself. It keeps me in rhythm, and I have fun on the mound."
This is Manaea, a quirky lefty with an intuitive mind. He can sense when he's mentally unraveling in a game and understands when to stop thinking and start singing.
"He's not an analytical guy by any means, but he's curious," Herbst said. "If you want to make a point, you need to tell him why. Then he's on board. He's trying to understand."
Manaea says he's ignoring everything involving the draft, and you can believe him or not. He looks ahead even if he doesn't admit it -- there are small glimpses.
His father has told him and his brother Dane, who graduated from Purdue last year, stories about his native Samoa, how beautiful it is there. Manaea has never been and says that's the first vacation spot he's taking his brother "when I have the money." So yes, his eyes look forward as he tries so hard to keep his mind in the present.
On Friday, in his first big evaluation of the draft season, Manaea will be concerned with two things: Throwing straight gas and being straight chill.
The SEC's first big showdown
These are the series people from Baton Rouge to Starkville, from Oxford down to Gainesville, wait for -- big conference duels in the SEC corners of the country. Paul Mainieri is tickled to talk about it.
"We're so anxious to get to SEC play," said the head coach of the 16-1 LSU Tigers. "I'm proud of how the guys approached the first 17 games, but you come to LSU to play in the SEC. That's what everyone is excited about now, and LSU-Mississippi State is one of the great rivalries."
It's the best matchup in the first weekend of league play, No. 2 LSU at No. 11 Mississippi State, and an opportunity for the Tigers to define themselves as one of the country's most complete teams. When I spoke with LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn earlier this spring, he knew the Tigers had plenty of quality arms, but he didn't know in what order they would align themselves.
Well, right-hander Aaron Nola has put two palms around the throat of the Friday starting spot, pounding strikes with a low-to-mid 90s sinker -- he has a 2.77 ERA with 32 strikeouts and four walks in 26 innings. Righty Ryan Eades has a 1.80 ERA on Saturday, and Mainieri says he's gotten much better at making quality pitches -- and having good misses -- at the critical points in innings. The Sunday spot was a question heading into the season, but Cody Glenn -- a finesse lefty who controls the running game and has an 0.77 ERA in four starts -- quickly took the suspense out of that competition.
Oh, and then there's closer Chris Cotton, a lefty with an 0.87 ERA, 15 strikeouts and zero walks in 10 2/3 innings. "He's a strike-throwing machine," Mainieri said. That's a theme for this staff, which leads the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 5.33 (through March 10). There's a bottomless well of arms in Baton Rouge, a group that Mainieri would talk about forever if he didn't also want to mention his hitting and defense. Those guys are pretty good, too.
All Arizona roads lead to Troupe
Through the coughs and wheezes, Arizona head coach Andy Lopez mentioned a couple of questions that were causing him more unrest than his spring cold as the No. 20 Wildcats prepare to host No. 4 Oregon State this weekend: Who's my Sunday starter, and how do I get more from closer Mathew Troupe?
"I have about an 80 percent feel for this club now, and we're vulnerable in the sixth and seventh innings," Lopez said. "We're trying to get [Troupe] more work per weekend so that we can sometimes go to him in the seventh inning. That'd be good."
Redshirt junior Stephen Manthei wanted the chance to start after pitching out of the bullpen last season, and Lopez granted him that opportunity on Sundays. But he was inconsistent in three starts and since has moved back to the bullpen, providing one possible bridge between the starters and Troupe. "Now he needs to settle into where he's been successful," Lopez said.
The Sunday starts will now likely be split between two freshmen: 6-4 left-hander Cody Moffett and 6-2 right-hander Tyger Talley. That decision is for the present and the future, as Lopez has always preferred to start a freshman on Sunday, with the idea being that Lopez is grooming him for the Saturday job and, eventually, the Friday one, too.
"Maybe we should have done that from the start of the season," Lopez said. "But for us, it's about getting the ball to Troupe in the seventh or eighth."
North Carolina's next test: Miami
No. 1 UNC is now 16-0, and I laugh when I recall an early-spring conversation with head coach Mike Fox after the first wave of polls came out. "Why is everyone ranking us No. 1?" he asked incredulously. "Can you tell me?" That's Fox, downplaying his club to fight the battle of entitlement.
Now the Tar Heels welcome Miami to Chapel Hill for the second weekend of ACC play, which should be a competitive series even if the Hurricanes are currently unranked. I caught up with UNC associate head coach and pitching coach Scott Forbes to get a few notes on some arms:
• Friday starter and junior lefty Kent Emanuel doesn't have the same ceiling as a Manaea, but he's been terrific so far this season for UNC and will likely go in the top 60 picks in June. Emanuel has an 0.56 ERA, 25 strikeouts and six walks in 32 innings, and Forbes says Emanuel has a better chance of holding his stuff through the end of the season because he's increased the commitment to his body, adding some "good weight" to get to 225-230 pounds. "He's a leader and runs on his own engine," Forbes said.
• Saturday starter Benton Moss is making the freshman-to-sophomore leap well -- with a 2.62 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 24 innings -- and his biggest improvement has come in his mechanics. Moss, a right-hander, has always had a good fastball and hammer breaking ball, but he could lose the strike zone at times. "He's a year older and starting to learn his delivery," Forbes said. "We've worked a lot out of the stretch, and he's loading up his hips nice now." The development of his changeup and slider has also been important to Moss' success.
• One of UNC's strengths coming into the season was its depth on the mound, and that shows in the bullpen. Forbes says right-handers Chris McCue and Trevor Kelley have emerged as late-inning guys, but Chris Munnelly, Luis Paula, Mason McCullough and a handful of others are carving out roles for themselves. Carolina can also use freshman Trent Thornton, a midweek starter with an 0.47 ERA in 19 1/3 innings, out of the 'pen on weekends if needed. "He's just a stud," Forbes said.
At the center of the Commonwealth
Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson will tell you that this team is plenty different from his previous ones. "Not to downplay their talent, but we don't have any of those big first-round guys this year," Henderson said.
The No. 10 Wildcats open their SEC slate by going to Gainesville, Fla., to face the Gators -- the unranked Gators, according to the USA Today coaches poll; they're still talented but have been banged up -- and even if they don't bring a club full of 2013 draft prospects, they bring a deep team built around sophomore A.J. Reed.
I asked Henderson how Reed has been most valuable so far this season, and he said, "Well, you can't really separate your Friday night starter from your No. 4 hitter. He's at the center of the club."
Yes, Reed is the leader of both the rotation and the lineup. He has a 3.22 ERA and 16 strikeouts (only four walks) in 22 1/3 innings, a southpaw who's aggressive in the strike zone. Jerad Grundy, a senior, has put up gaudier numbers -- 1.35 ERA, 28 strikeouts and four walks in 26 2/3 innings -- but Henderson likes Reed on Friday because of his competitiveness. "He's the type of kid when the game gets a little bigger, the more likely he is to show up and produce," Henderson said.
Reed is hitting .361/.473/.672 with five homers so far, and his improvement as a hitter has come in his plate discipline. He's recognizing off-speed pitches better than he did as a freshman, and he's taking a more advanced approach when deciding which pitches to swing at -- those combined have fueled an increase in power production.
Another Wildcats hitter to watch against Florida: J.T. Riddle. He's hitting .400, plays exceptional defense at second base and Henderson credits his jump to added strength and an approach that was refined last summer in the Cape Cod League. "When you get the wood bat in your hands for a summer, it makes hitters realize what they can handle and what they can't," Henderson said. "It makes them to improve their strike zone."
Prospect watch: Tom Windle, LHP, Minnesota
Given the amount of elite teams and talent in other parts of the country, we don't get many opportunities to highlight the Big Ten on a national stage, so I'll do that here with Windle.
He's listed at 6-4 and 215 pounds and has two factors converging in his favor this weekend: Windle has some buzz after throwing a no-hitter against Western Illinois last week -- pro evaluators won't get too caught up in collegiate success, but obviously it helps -- and this week's start comes at home against Manaea, which will bring some serious pro heat to the Metrodome (including ESPN Insider's Keith Law, who'll file a report from the game).
When I spoke with Herbst, he said he wouldn't be surprised if the total number of representatives from MLB teams approaches 100 this Friday. The main attraction is Manaea, of course, but Windle is a worthy sparring partner. He doesn't have top-five pick potential, but he can work himself into first-round consideration as a polished lefty with a higher floor than some riskier prep prospects.
Today in Omaha: High of 52 degrees, some morning clouds but a mostly sunny afternoon, 93 days until CWS Game 1 (as of March 14).