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If there is one overarching theme this offseason, it's this: every team wants pitching. That is true every offseason, really, but this offseason there is not nearly enough pitching to go around. It's a thin free agent class and, as a result, clubs with pitching to trade are seeking a huge return. It is supply and demand, and the demand for pitching greatly outweighs the supply right now.

With Yoshinobu Yamamoto off the board, 2023 World Series champion Jordan Montgomery and 2023 NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell are pretty clearly the two best free agent starters still available. Here are the top unsigned free agent starters by FanGraphs projected 2024 WAR:

  1. LHP Blake Snell: 3.3 WAR
  2. LHP Jordan Montgomery: 3.2 WAR
  3. LHP Shota Imanaga: 2.6 WAR (who's this?)
  4. RHP Marcus Stroman: 2.6 WAR
  5. LHP James Paxton: 2.3 WAR

That leaderboard goes from "this guy is really good" to "I'm not sure he can give you 100 innings" real quick. And it's not like so many top starters have already signed, you know? Yamamoto, Sonny Gray, Aaron Nola, Eduardo Rodriguez, that's really it. The lack of available quality starters says more about the free agent market than an active hot stove.

No. 6 on that leaderboard at 2.0 WAR is another left-hander: Sean Manaea, most recently of the San Francisco Giants. The soon-to-be 32-year-old threw 117 2/3 innings with a 4.44 ERA last season, then he used an opt out in his contract to enter free agency. The Giants gave Manaea two years and $25 million last offseason, and he walked away from $12.5 million with the opt out.

Sean Manaea
NYM • RP • #59
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On the surface, there's nothing remarkable about pitching to a 4.44 ERA, especially when your home ballpark is spacious Oracle Park (Manaea was about 5% below average once adjusted for ballpark). It's not often a pitcher walks away from $12.5 million after having a slightly below average season, but Manaea did it. In this weak free agent class, he's in line for more.

The surface numbers are fine but, under the hood, there are several reasons to believe Manaea can be a valuable contributor in 2024, and is the rare undervalued free agent in a market short on quality pitchers. Here are three reasons Manaea could be a sneaky-good pickup for a pitching-needy club.

Offseason training led to more velocity

Last offseason Manaea trained at Driveline Baseball, the famed data-driven facility in Seattle, and they helped him optimize his mechanics. Specifically the way he rotates his torso. As a result, Manaea added nearly 3 mph to his fastball in 2023, and he threw 34 of the 50 fastest pitches of his career last season. This is significant:

Sean Manaea added velocity after training at Driveline last offseason. Brooks Baseball

"You can just see how much more physical he is right now. You can see it in the radar gun and how hard he's throwing. And he's taking on a little bit more of the persona of a power pitcher," Giants director of pitching Brian Bannister told The Athletic about Manaea last spring. "... You're seeing a different version of him. He was always known as a crafty, visually deceptive pitcher in the low 90s. And now these newer, higher velo ranges give him an opportunity to change his game a little bit."

Velocity is not everything but it's not nothing either. Velocity equals margin of error, and in Manaea's case, the improved fastball had more separation from his changeup, which is his go-to secondary pitch. Opponents hit .299 with a 529 slugging percentage against his changeup in 2022. In 2023, it was .208 and .333, respectively. Manaea's improved fastball made his changeup better.

He added a new pitch in May

Sweepers -- 80ish mph sliders with a ton of horizontal movement -- are all the rage these days. Really, they were all the rage a year or two ago and are kinda sorta beginning to go out of style, but they are an effective pitch, and Manaea picked up a sweeper last year. In the middle of the season, too. He threw it for the first time on May 30. By July, it was his go-to secondary pitch.

Batters hit .140 with a .163 slugging percentage against Manaea's sweeper, and they missed with 35.1% of their swings. Against his traditional slider, they hit .285 with a .567 slugging percentage, and whiffed only 26.2% of the time. Not surprisingly, the sweeper more or less replaced the traditional slider in the middle of the season. Manaea stopped using both and committed to the sweeper.

For the bulk of his career with the Oakland Athletics, Manaea was a sinker/changeup pitcher with an occasional slider. He has an entirely new pitch mix now. Manaea is a four-seamer/sweeper pitcher with a third pitch changeup, and he throws harder than ever. The pitcher Manaea is right now is very different from the pitcher he was in 2022, or even at the beginning of 2023.

And thanks to that new pitch mix, Manaea went from a 5.49 ERA in the first half to a 3.43 ERA in the second half, and he struck out 25.7% of the batters he faced. That's comfortably above the 22.7% league average and matched Manaea's career best in a full season. He also set a new career best with a 36.4% hard-hit rate allowed. That's below the 39.2% league average.

Versatile enough to handle any role

For the first time in his career, Manaea saw significant action out of the bullpen in 2023. He made 10 starts, including four in April to begin the season and four in September to close out the season, plus 27 relief appearances. And those 27 relief appearances really covered the entire spectrum. Manaea pitch in bulk relief behind an opener, long relief, short relief, long rest, short rest, you name it.

Here is a breakdown of his bullpen workload:

  • 3+ innings: 13 times
  • 2 or fewer innings: 13 times
  • 1 or fewer inning: 6 times
  • 4+ days of rest: 11 times
  • 2 or fewer days of rest: 7 times

On May 22, Manaea threw 83 pitches in 3 2/3 scoreless innings behind an opener. Only two days later on May 24, he entered into the fifth inning of a one-run game, and retired all four batters he faced (three via strikeout). That's what he can bring to the team. Long relief one day and then high-leverage outs two days later. That's a valuable piece on a modern pitching staff.

Now, the catch is Manaea did not seem to particularly enjoy his time in the bullpen. He was a starter his entire career entering 2023 and then suddenly he was asked to fill a new role. He did it because his team asked him to do and because he's a good teammate, and he did it well, though it sounds like Manaea did not especially enjoy being this hybrid jack of all trades reliever.

"This is the most amount of time I've spent in the bullpen," Manaea told in September. "It was very hard, very difficult to mentally be there, knowing where I wanted to be. I think it ultimately helped me out. I think I tried to make the most out of it. I think that's kind of what's happening. At the end of the day, I think it's the best thing that's happened to me."

Would Manaea accept a similar role with a new team? I guess it depends on the money, right? I'm sure Manaea wants to start -- every pitcher wants to start -- and it would seem like the opportunity to start will be there this offseason, but the case can be made Manaea would be more valuable to his team in a hybrid role. If nothing else, he showed the bullpen is a viable option.

These days pitchers like Manaea -- relatively young, healthy, something to prove -- sign two-year contracts with an opt out. There is no such thing as a one-year deal for these guys anymore. Manaea got two years with an opt out last offseason. Lucas Giolito, Nick Martinez, and Michael Wacha all signed a similar contract this offseason. Want a mid-range starter? This is what it takes.

What Manaea's next contract will be, I do not know. I do know there are reasons to believe Manaea can be a valuable member of a contender's pitching staff. He's added significant velocity, he has a new sweeper that reshaped his arsenal, and you can use him in just about any role. At a time when every team needs pitching, Manaea is available to solve all sorts of problems.