As Brandon Finnegan fiddled with his sanitary socks and pondered the tempestuous humidity of the Mid-Atlantic summer, a hulking figure walked into the home clubhouse at Frawley Stadium and sidled up to the locker next door.
Finnegan, the Royals’ first-round pick in June, glanced up and smiled at Sean Manaea, the centerpiece of the organization’s first-day draft strategy in 2013. Together, they form part of the backbone of the team’s stockpile of pitching prospects and exhibit a study in contrasts.
Finnegan is 5-11 and 185 pounds and has set aside hitters for Class A Wilmington with ease since his arrival on July 10. Manaea is six inches taller, listed at 50 pounds heavier, and to hear both Royals officials and rival evaluators tell it, as green as Finnegan is polished. In four pristine outings since signing, Finnegan has allowed four total base runners and struck out a batter for each of his 11 innings.
“Man, it just goes by so quick,” Finnegan told Wilmington manager Darryl Kennedy after another brisk performance.
A year removed from surgery to repair the labrum in his right hip, an injury that left him available to the Royals with the 34th pick, Manaea has experienced more hurdles.
His first season as a professional has been marked with the well-worn stresses of adjustment: the toll of bus rides into the wee hours, the demand of a more taxing throwing schedule and the challenge of a league stocked with aggressive, experienced hitters.
“You know,” Manaea remarked to the organization’s director of player development, Scott Sharp, “this is different.”
As the season winds down, the Blue Rocks hope Manaea (3-7, 3.94 ERA) and fellow highly touted right-hander Miguel Almonte (6-6, 4.77 ERA) finish rocky campaigns on an upbeat note. They also want to retain Finnegan for as long as possible during a Carolina League playoff run. Among the team’s pitching prospects, only Kyle Zimmer is considered to possess a higher ceiling.
Zimmer, the No. 5 overall pick in 2012, lingers in the dry dock of the club’s complex in Surprise, Ariz., toiling through a throwing program. A strained latissimus dorsi muscle effectively sabotaged his season. The Royals are still discussing where he will pitch when he is ready for live competition, but the most likely destination is the Arizona Fall League.
With Zimmer sidelined, the Wilmington rotation became the most intriguing of all the club’s affiliates when this season began — except the standout performer of the group was Christian Binford, a 30th-round pick who has not been showered with adoration from publications such as Baseball America.
An encouraging first half by Binford merited a promotion to Class AA Northwest Arkansas and an appearance at the Futures Game. Rival scouts peg Binford as a back-end starter at best, as he lacks a signature weapon, which Binford himself confirmed before the Futures Game earlier this month at Target Field. “I don’t have any standout pitches,” he said.
The same cannot be said for Almonte, Manaea and Finengan. Sharp believes Almonte, at 21, “has a more advanced feel for pitching” than Yordano Ventura did at the Class A level. Ventura resembled a rocket in his rise from the lower ranks. He zoomed from Wilmington in 2012 to the majors the following September.
That sort of trajectory is rare, and Almonte has stumbled at times this season. Rival evaluators disparage the utility of his curveball. Sharp indicated Almonte sometimes becomes too enamored with his change-up and leans on it to baffle overmatched opponents. Team officials implored him to utilize his fastball more often.
“He’ll get into ‘Well, I’m going to get a swing-and-miss here with my change-up,’ ” Sharp said. “Well, that’s great, but you’re facing the seven-hole hitter in the Carolina League. You’re not facing a major-league hitter. We’re trying to get him to understand that those are the points where ‘your stuff is better than the competitor.’ ”
On Sunday night, Manaea accumulated five scoreless innings in taxing, emblematic fashion. He yielded five hits and issued four walks but managed to keep Winston-Salem scoreless thanks to five strikeouts. He leads the rotation with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, but has also walked 5.0 batters per nine.
One scout who saw him earlier this season expressed admiration for the overall package, but worried about Manaea’s inability to repeat his mechanics. His talent was evident, but his path to the major leagues would be “slow,” the evaluator said, drawing out the syllables of the adjective.
“For as good as that guy looks in a uniform, he doesn’t appear overly athletic on the mound,” the scout said. “His delivery was raw.”
Kennedy did not disagree with the second half of that assessment.
“That’s a good word,” Kennedy said. “That’s probably the best word for it. He’s just raw.”
Manaea was not drafted out of high school, and he arrived at Indiana State as a project. He stunned scouts at the Cape Cod League in 2012, but damaged his hip his junior year. This spring and summer, he has learned the difference between the Missouri Valley Conference and the Carolina League.
“The guys that he’s faced, they don’t care whether it’s his first year or his fifth year or his eighth year,” Sharp said. “They’re trying to get hits. They have no sympathy for him.”
Manaea will benefit from the strain, Sharp continued.
“I think it’s been very productive,” he said. “I think it’s been a very steep learning curve.”
Finnegan has experienced a gentler grade. He embarked for Wilmington fresh from the tension of the College World Series. Since Finnegan pitched 105 2/3 innings for TCU already this year, the Royals projected a maximum of 45 to 50 additional innings.
His schedule calls for two more four-inning stints with the Blue Rocks. From there, the organization will decide how to proceed.
Sharp stressed there was little reason to wear Finnegan out in his first season. Yet he also mentioned his efficiency has allowed him to complete “very low-mileage innings.”
For now, Finnegan’s presence benefits Manaea, his taller, likewise talented teammate.
“He’s a rare breed, no doubt, and we’re fortunate to get him and have him here,” Kennedy said. “It’s been very good. I think it’s been very good for Sean to see that, and kind of rub off on that.”