It didn’t take long for Alek Manoah, the Blue Jays’ top pick at last week’s MLB draft, to jump on the Raptors bandwagon.
The NBA Finals were split at one win a piece between the Raptors and the Golden State Warriors when the 21-year-old right hander, a junior from West Virginia University, was selected by Toronto with the 11th overall pick last Monday.
By the time he officially signed with the Jays 10 days later — reportedly for the full slot value of $ 4,547,500 (U.S.), the largest draft bonus in team history — he was a bona fide Raptors fan, spending the night he inked his deal watching the championship-clinching game in a Florida hotel room with his mom and stepdad, a Warriors fan.
“Extremely excited to see the support that Toronto gives that team. Not even Toronto — Canada in general,” the Miami-born Manoah said during a conference call Friday. “It just means so much for the people there and that support group that they have, and obviously it means so much for those players, so (I’m) really looking forward to enjoying that feeling one day with the Blue Jays.”
The Raptors gave Manoah some thrills during a frustrating period between his selection and his signing. The six-foot-six, 260-pound power pitcher was eager to get going and could have done with out the procedural stuff in between.
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He was at the home of Randy Mazey, his head coach at West Virginia University, when he heard his name called in the draft.
“It’s like a recording that plays in your mind as a kid — that you constantly hear your name get called at the podium,” Manoah said. “It’s something you hear when you go to bed, it’s something you visualize when you sleep.
“When the pick was in, I heard it and finally it was real and … it sounded exactly how I thought it would sound.”
Manoah, who wasn’t drafted out of high school, shot up most prospect rankings this season by going 9-3 with a 1.85 ERA in his junior year with the Mountaineers. Steve Sanders, the Jays’ director of amateur scouting, said the team likes Manoah’s pitch mix — he throws a two- and four-seam fastball, a plus slider and is working on his changeup.
Manoah worked this past year on eliminating walks, throwing strikes and improving his slider, all helped by a change he made to his delivery. He eliminated his windup and pitched out of the stretch, and now feels more in sync on the mound. He is better able to load his hips, which helps him maintain velocity between 94 and 97 miles per hour, and he finds he is now more consistent with his arm angles, release points and direction toward the plate.
“I know I’m big. I don’t try and confuse myself and try and be a little guy or one of these athletic pitchers,” Manoah said. “I know what works for me.”
This was Manoah’s first year operating solely as a pitcher. He was a catcher before a growth spurt in high school, and he pitched and played first base in his first two college seasons.
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Mixing in his changeup more often is now a priority for Manoah, who should start at the Jays’ spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla., and join one of Toronto’s minor-league affiliates as he builds his arm strength.
“I still think I’m a little bit raw,” he said. “There’s a lot more advanced hitters at (the professional) level, everyone at this level can hit a mid- to upper-90s level fastball … Being able to have three or four plus-plus pitches, I think, will separate me.”
Manoah is eager to get to Toronto, but there will be a number of bridges to cross along the way— not all of them performance related. “Funny story, I actually don’t even have a passport, to be honest with you, so I’m still working on getting that.”
Laura Armstrong is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraarmy