Manuel finds role, bridges the gap
Reds prospect snags MiLBY as top Double-A Relief Pitcher
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
During his first two full seasons of pro ball, right-hander Robert Manuel was a good soldier who did whatever was needed on the mound.
This year, finally moved into a middle-relief role exclusively, the Cincinnati Reds farmhand was commander-in-chief.
A 25-year-old with pinpoint control, Manuel handled middle-relief work for the Chattanooga Lookouts in exemplary fashion to earn the 2008 MiLBY for Best Double-A Relief Pitcher.
Adding a brief four-game stint at Class A Advanced Sarasota in April and a lone two-inning appearance at Triple-A Louisville, Manuel combined to go 6-3 with a 1.25 ERA in 52 games, striking out 103 while scattering 54 hits and walking 18 in 86 2/3 innings. His .174 opponents' batting average ranked 10th among all Minor League relievers.
Manuel moved up to Chattanooga on April 17 and did not allow an earned run there until mid-May, a span of 12 games and 16 innings in which he walked only three while striking out 20. Overall for the Lookouts, he had a 1.40 ERA and three saves (two of them the three-inning variety) while striking out 92 in 77 innings.
A few more stats of note: At no point during the season did his ERA rise above 1.91. He walked just 15 batters -- six intentionally -- with the Lookouts. He yielded two home runs all season and allowed only 10 inherited runners to score.
Though closers generally get the headlines, Manuel's strength is longer relief. And 23 of his 47 Lookouts' appearances consisted of two or more innings.
A non-drafted free agent out of Sam Houston State who was acquired from the New York Mets in a 2006 deal for veteran Dave Williams, Manuel was one of the most pleasant surprises of the season for the Reds.
"Every level we put him at, he gets people out," said Cincinnati player development director Terry Reynolds. "He's one of those guys we'll just keeping pushing and see what it brings."
Manuel put up impressive numbers in his 2005 pro debut with the Mets, going 8-1 with a 2.06 ERA in 12 games, including five starts, in the Gulf Coast League. From the start, he showed superb command by walking four batters and fanning 49 in 56 2/3 innings.
Traded to the Reds in early 2006, Manuel was assigned to Class A Dayton and split time between the bullpen and the rotation, posting a 4.31 ERA and again walking only four over 48 innings. In relief, his ERA was a 2.45; as a starter, it rose to 5.46.
Moving up to Sarasota in 2007, Manuel began the year in relief with a 1.65 ERA but moved into the rotation when Travis Wood was injured. His ERA rose again, this time to 6.39 in 11 starts, giving him a season line of 6-5 with a 4.03 ERA and 22 walks against 93 strikeouts over 98 1/3 innings.
Coming into 2008, the Reds saw the light.
"They basically talked to me and said, 'Even though you've been a starter, we see you more as a reliever, in middle relief,'" Manuel said. "I embraced that with open arms and took it and ran with it, and it's worked out so far."
At the start of the season, the Chattanooga bullpen appeared to be loaded with closer prospect Josh Roenicke, converted starter Carlos Fisher and southpaw Pedro Viola. But when Manuel was promoted two weeks into the season, he fit quickly into his role.
"It was awesome to be able to help out a 'pen that was already so strong before I got there," he said. "My role was to get the ball to those guys with the lead and keep the game close, so I was just bridging the gap between the starter and the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning guys."
Manuel, who converted to pitching from playing shortstop in college, definitely prefers coming out of the bullpen -- and not just because he's had more success there.
"I like going to the ballpark knowing I could make a difference in a ballgame three or four times a week rather than just once," he said. "And I like the pressure of getting into a game in crucial situations."
Manuel mixes a lively fastball that hovers around 90 mph, a slider and a changeup, the latter of which he's been working on most in his Arizona Fall League stint with the Peoria Javelinas. But he knows what he's got to work with and doesn't try to do too much.
"My out pitch is basically a fastball, but I'm more of a control guy," he said. "I don't throw 98 mph. If I try, I lose my control. And I don't have a knockout pitch, so to speak. I pitch effectively and I think that's my biggest attribute."