AL Midseason Debuts: Prospects Looking to Make an Impact – #5 Sean Manaea

With the 2016 season underway, each team looks to compete immediately with the pickups they made in the offseason. But as we saw around the MLB in the 2015, the midseason callups can have as big of an impact as the players obtained in free agency. This series will detail the 5 prospects in the AL looking to make the biggest impact on their respective teams this season.

For the purposes of this series, we will set a few baseline criteria:

  1. The prospect cannot have any previous Major League experience prior to the 2016 season.
  2. The prospect must already be reasonably close to the MLB.
  3. The prospect must play a position of need for his big-league squad, and this need cannot be due to injury.

Be sure to check out the impact cases for the prospects previously covered:

#5 – Nick Williams, PHI, OF

#4 – Robert Stephenson, CIN, RHP

#3 – Orlando Arcia, MIL, SS

#2 – Aaron Blair, ATL, RHP

#1 – Tyler Glasnow, PIT, RHP

5. Sean Manaea, OAK, LHP

As the Oakland Athletics began their season, their fans eagerly anticipated the arrival of #64 overall prospect, Sean Manaea. After coming over in the Ben Zobrist trade in 2015, Manaea has done nothing but affirm that he deserves a shot in the A’s rotation with continued success in the minors. The back portion of the Oakland rotation getting off to a weak start in 2016 has only opened the door further for Manaea.

Manaea began the year in AAA Nashville, where he got off to a hot start. After solid success last year at AA Midland in the hitter friendly Texas League, this was unsurprising. Once the 6’5″ lefty arrived from the Royals last year, Manaea maintained a blistering 29.5 K% while keeping an average 8.7 BB% in 42.2 IP. His ERA was a very low 1.90, and even though his FIP of 2.95 suggests regression, this itself is still an imposing number. Furthermore, Manaea was able to hold opposing batters to a .217 batting average on a perfectly normal .301 BABIP.

While this all came in the small sample of 7 starts, the fact that he had continued into 2016 while stepping up a level suggests that Manaea could be the real deal. In 3 starts, Manaea went 18 IP, giving up just 3 earned runs for a 1.50 ERA and striking out more than a batter an inning. It’s possible that he has seen an improvement in his control too, keeping a 5.5 BB%, although this comes with the caveat of an even smaller sample size than last year.

The Athletics must have believed in his talent too, and on April 29, he made his major league debut. As of this posting, Manaea has made 2 starts, totaling 10 IP, with a 19.6 K%, 10.9 BB%, and a 4.62 xFIP. In the small sample, he has kept his groundball level above 50%, and his fastball has averaged in the lower-to-mid 90s. While he will need to work on maintaining the lower walk rate he saw in AAA, Manaea’s other peripheral stats indicate that he has been solid, though unspectacular, in his first few appearances. Developments in the A’s rotation should enable him to continue earning chances to prove his worth.

The A’s rotation began the 2016 season in a state of nebulous. Sonny Gray, the unquestioned #1 of the staff, came off a 2015 in which he came in 3rd for the AL Cy Young voting behind Dallas Keuchel of the Astros and David Price of the Tigers/Blue Jays. After this, Rich HillKendall Graveman, Chris Bassitt, and Eric Surkamp filled out the rest of the spots. Henderson Alvarez is also currently working back from shoulder surgery, and should supplant someone once he is healthy.

However, the rotation after Gray and Hill has been dubious. Gravemen, Bassitt, and Surkamp all have around 1 total season’s worth of approximately replacement level performance in their past. Alvarez was solid as recently as 2014 with the Marlins, but the shoulder injury derailed his 2015 after just 4 starts. Of the three inexperienced starters, two would likely have to make way for Alvarez and Manaea long-term.

The 36 year-old Hill has bounced back and forth between AAA and the majors consistently since 2005. Of his 205 major league appearances, 78 have been as a starter. Although he has 5 times as many IP in that capacity compared to relief, the last significant major league starting experience he had came in 2009 with the Orioles. Hill does not generate many groundballs (~40%), and while he displays flashes of strikeout ability, (34% K rate in 29 IP as a starter last year), his stuff is not overpowering. He relies almost exclusively on his lower 90s fastball and his mid 70s curveball to attack hitters, which rate averagely. Hill did, however, produce 1.1 fWAR in just 29 IP for the Red Sox last year, while maintaining a 1.55 ERA and 2.50 xFIP.

The Athletics may have been hoping that they could catch lightning in a bottle again with Hill in 2016, and in 7 starts so far, they could be correct. With a 28.9 K%, 47.3 GB%, and an xFIP of 3.66 through 37.2 IP, Hill has seen some initial success despite a high walk rate of 10.1%. If Hill can maintain these preliminary results while bringing the walk rate down, his spot in the Athletics rotation is safe. However, the low .292 BABIP and 6.5 HR/FB% suggest that he could regress as those come back to normal.

Gravemen spent his rookie year in 2015 in the Athletics rotation, making 21 starts and tallying 115.2 IP. Using his 91 mph sinker, mixed with a mid 80s cutter and working in occasional sliders and changeups, Graveman generates a lot of groundballs. He uses this profile to compensate for the fact that he does not strike many batters out, with just a 15.3 K% in 2015. In 5 starts in 2016, Graveman has gone 28.2 IP, with an increased K% at 20.3%. He has maintained his above-average groundball rate at 53.9%, and due to an extremely high (19.2%) HR/FB rate, his ERA stands at 4.40. The xFIP of 3.57 suggests he should perform admirably as the rate comes back to normal. Graveman has pivoted from relying as heavily on the sinker, and has mixed in more cutters and sliders to keep hitters off-balance. Graveman has performed decently for a young arm, but to ensure his rotation spot from the threat of Manaea or Alvarez, he will need to maintain these results despite his lack of experience.

It was recently announced that Chris Bassit would miss the remainder of the 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery. He had made 5 unimpressive starts for the A’s this year after a similar 2015 rookie campaign. He is a low strikeout, high walk pitcher that doesn’t produce enough groundballs for someone of that profile. While it’s unfortunate that Oakland has lost him to injury this year, his spot in the rotation was likely in danger of being lost to either Manaea or Alvarez. From a depth perspective, however, this was a huge blow to the A’s, though it does make roster decisions a little easier.

Lastly, Surkamp was demoted to AAA in order for Manaea to make his debut. Between Surkamp’s 9.2 K%, 12.2 BB%, 6.72 xFIP, and his high 80s fastball, its easy to see why there was not much need or desire for him to be in the Oakland rotation. While his 2016 performance as a starter were hurtful to the A’s, there might be use for him in the bullpen at some point down the road. Surkamp’s demotion was expected, and he was always the most likely to give way to Manaea. But his results were so poor that it likely enabled Manaea to get called up sooner than anticipated, and also likely gave him a longer leash than he might have received otherwise.

Walk-Off Hit: Sean Manaea 2016 Impact Outlook

All told, lefty Sean Manaea looks to make an impact in the Oakland Athletics rotation in 2016 with his powerful fastball and slider combo. His high strikeout rate throughout the minors signals that he has the stuff to overpower opposing batters, and if he is able to make improvements to his control, his rookie season looks to have promise. Manaea originally made it to the bigs on his own talent and merit. But, the fact that Oakland’s other rotation options have not panned out well so far provides Manaea with an extended opportunity to test his mettle at the highest level of competition.  With the AL West looking to be particularly weak in 2016, the A’s may have an outside chance to compete and Manaea can certainly become a contributor to that campaign.

What do you think? Will Sean Manaea be able to sustain his minor league success in Oakland? Will the Athletics other young rotation options make a push for his spot? What other prospects do you think belong on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @SaberBallBlog. Don’t forget to subscribe to SaberBallBlog by clicking the green “Follow” button in the menu, and follow on Twitter for all of the latest updates on the MLB!

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