The chain of events that delivered Sean Manaea to the Royals started 360 days ago with a hole at the base of the Metrodome mound.
When the Indiana State Sycamores came to Minneapolis that night, they boasted one of the finest pitching prospects in the country and a probable top-five pick in Manaea. In the late innings, as Manaea’s 6-5, 235-pound frame thundered forward on his delivery, a slight pain tickled his right hip.
“I didn’t really think anything of it,” he said last week on a back field in the Royals’ complex. “A couple of weeks after that, I just couldn’t put any weight on my front leg without it hurting a lot.”
The discomfort stayed with Manaea throughout the rest of the season. A stab accompanied each pitch. He altered his mechanics to compensate and developed shoulder soreness. His fastball velocity decreased. Scouts raised red flags.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore understood the stakes. Moore said that before the injury, Royals scouting director Lonnie Goldberg told him that Manaea “was one of the best in the country and he would never get to us” at the eighth pick.
Even as Manaea’s stock plummeted, the Royals sensed a rare combination of talent and toughness. They centered their draft strategy on landing him.
The gamble was three-fold. They thought Manaea would fall to them at the 34th pick, which would allow them to draft shortstop Hunter Dozier eighth and still divert a sizable chunk of their bonus pool to Manaea. They trusted their medical judgments on his hip. And they believed that once healed, Manaea could reclaim the form that mesmerized scouts the previous summer in the Cape Cod League.
A month shy of the regular season, the first two hurdles appear cleared, and the organization has charted a course that could bring Manaea to the majors by next summer.
The organization intends to cap Manaea at 150 innings. Team officials hope he begins the season at Class A Wilmington in the upper-level Carolina League.
“There’s something to his pitchability, his deception that makes us believe he should be able to go to Wilmington without an issue,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said.
The team lavished upon Manaea a $3.55 million bonus, the second-highest bonus ever given to a player not selected in the first round. Manaea signed on a Friday. Three days later, Marc Philippon repaired a torn labrum in Manaea’s hip. Manaea declared himself “pretty much 100 percent” earlier this week.
The team considers Manaea and Kyle Zimmer the most impressive recent additions to their stable of pitching prospects. Like Zimmer, Manaea enters the 2014 season with questions about his physical stability. He intends to answer them with his professional debut this spring.
After he rehabbed his hip, Manaea visited the Instructional League to clean up the deficiencies in his delivery created by his initial discomfort.
During a minor-league game Friday afternoon, his first live competition against hitters since last May, Manaea displayed evidence of his promise. He impressed observers with the ease of his delivery, the bite of his slider and the polish of his change-up. One scout stationed behind the plate clocked Manaea’s fastball steady at 93 to 94 mph.
In the summer of 2012, when he was chosen the top prospect on the Cape, his fastball blazed in the upper 90s. If Manaea sat around 92-93 mph, “that would be plenty,” Picollo said.
“Anything more is a bonus for starters,” he added.
When Manaea enrolled at Indiana State, head coach Rick Heller viewed him as a project. Manaea was undrafted out of South Central High in Union Mills, Ind. He featured an impressive frame, but little else. His fastball sat in the mid-80s, and his secondary pitches were erratic.
“He was a development kid,” said Heller, now the coach at Iowa.
Manaea’s ascendance was rapid. By the winter of his freshman year, he hit 90 mph. He stood out in the Missouri Valley Conference as a sophomore, with 115 strikeouts in 105 innings.
Before Manaea left for the Cape that summer, Heller figured “he was going to have a really nice summer. I don’t think any of us thought it was going to be the kind of summer that he did have, to completely dominate the league.”
As Manaea shined on that stage, scouts and prospective agents flocked to him. The attention overwhelmed him. He had never before felt the full force of the industry’s adulation.
“He just hated having to do it,” Heller said. “He hated having to talk to all the people. It just wasn’t him.”
The summer matured him, Heller said. He required that quality the next spring.
After that night in the Metrodome, the tenor of the conversation changed. Doctors initially diagnosed an impingement of his hip, which they thought would heal. Manaea kept pitching, despite the money he risked and the alarms he set off among observers.
His resolve impressed at least one major-league club. In a big-league season, Moore explained, a starting pitcher takes the mound in possession of his best stuff about a third of the time. What separates the best is their makeup.
“He’s got a toughness that he displayed during a particular time in his life,” Moore said.
And his results remained sterling. Manaea struck out 93 batters in 73 1/3 innings. His ERA was 1.47.
A few years prior, Royals outfielder Alex Gordon had undergone a similar procedure on his hip, one also performed by Philippon. Royals trainer Nick Kenney told Moore the injury was a “fixable condition.”
Manaea stalked the back fields last week, a sizable specimen among his fellow minor-leaguers. His path here started with a hole in a Metrodome mound. The Royals hope the route takes him to the majors soon enough.
As his first professional season beckons, he feels unencumbered by his hip woes.
“I don’t really feel anything,” Manaea said. “It’s pretty much 100 percent. It gets a little sore when I’m working out, or standing around for a long time. But other than that, it feels great.”