What Spencer Torkelson showed in Detroit Tigers instructional league game

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Spencer Torkelson‘s at-bat in the third inning Wednesday was nearly a moment to remember. He crushed a fastball to dead center field, where the warning track ends 420 feet away from home plate at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

But it didn’t go the distance.

It was so close to one of those 54 “Tork bombs” he hit in two-plus seasons for Arizona State, leading to him becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. The Detroit Tigers are still waiting to see his home run power in a real game against a real opponent, and with the instructional league ongoing, there’s a new chance every day.

On Friday, facing the Pittsburgh Pirates, Torkelson drove a 2-2 fastball into the left-field corner for a double in the first inning. That extra-base hit helped prove what the scouts and front office project: Torkelson, 21, will be a complete player.

His first-inning walk from Wednesday’s game nudged that narrative, as well.

“He comes in every day, you wouldn’t know what round these guys were drafted,” instructional league manager Andrew Graham, also the High-A Lakeland manager, said Friday about Torkelson and Riley Greene, the team’s No. 4 prospect (drafted No. 5 overall in 2019). “You wouldn’t know how much signing bonus they got. They’re just very humble, level-headed kids who love playing the game and want to get better every day.

“We’re going to have two great players there.”

[ How Tigers’ Riley Greene found his swing — and his swagger — in Toledo ]

The outcome

The 2-1 loss doesn’t reflect what really happened. The instructional league focuses on development, not wins and losses. That’s why the game only went 8½ innings; Detroit didn’t bat in the bottom of the ninth because the Pirates ran out of pitchers.

The Tigers sent out a starting lineup featuring Torkelson, Greene and five other top-30 prospects (according to MLB Pipeline): Daniel Cabrera (No. 11), Parker Meadows (No. 13), Wenceel Perez (No. 16), Gage Workman (No. 22) and Andre Lipcius (No. 28) for five innings.

And then, they cleaned house and switched to a second lineup to begin the top of the sixth, utilizing Bryant Packard (No. 18), Kody Clemens (No. 19), Colt Keith (No. 21) and Trei Cruz (No. 27).

“We’re thankful to be out in the field playing baseball in the year 2020 on the minor-league side,” Graham said. “These kids are loving it, and it’s good that they’re getting at-bats and we’re not wasting a whole year of development.”

For subscribers: Where Tigers top prospects stand entering instructional league: ‘As advertised’

The only run scored by the Tigers came from Clemens’ single to drive in Keith in the seventh, but the inning ended with one out and two runners on. Each pitcher tossed one inning; some went a full three outs, others less. Both teams enforced pitch-count limits.

“Obviously, a lot of young kids I’ve never seen throw before,” Graham said. “Would have been fun to see some of these arms advance up to the level I would’ve been at here in Lakeland (High-A), but I’m seeing them for the first time today.”

Here’s how some of the top prospects did at the plate: Torkelson was 1-for-2 (double); Greene was 0-for-2; Daniel Cabrera was 0-for-2 (reached on error); Workman was 0-for-2; Lipcius was 1-for-1 (double, walk), Perez was 0-for-1 (walk); Keith walked; Clemens was 1-for-1 (one RBI); Bryant was 0-for-1.

Foley has ‘developed a long way’

It’s easy to forget right-hander Jason Foley wasn’t drafted.

He struggled in three seasons for Sacred Heart, a private college in Connecticut, with a 4.84 ERA and 1.482 WHIP in 48 games (37 starts). After his junior year, however, the Tigers signed him as a reliever because of his fastball velocity.

On Friday, the 24-year-old maxed out at 99 mph.

“I had Foley in High-A all last year, and he was more of a four-steam guy,” Graham said. “He wanted to live at the top of the zone with a four-steam and use his split-change. But he’s just straight two-seam now.”

Foley made it to High-A for six games in 2017, but spent most of the year pitching for Single-A West Michigan. He was set back by Tommy John surgery in July 2017, ending his season and forcing him to miss the 2018 campaign.

He returned to High-A in 2019, firing a 3.89 ERA across 44 innings and 36 games. He posted 43 strikeouts compared to 17 walks but often ran into trouble with 46 hits allowed. Still, he got his velocity to triple digits — a sign that elbow surgery hasn’t derailed him.

With the minors canceled this past season, Foley worked out on his own before the Tigers added him to the alternate training site in Toledo on Sept. 4 to finish out the year. He retired the three batters he faced in a row Friday, producing two strikeouts and a groundout to first base in the seventh inning.

“He’s got the same velocity, but he’s getting unbelievable movement,” Graham said about Foley’s two-seamer. “You can see how uncomfortable the hitters are in the box. He’s developed a long way throughout 2020. He’s made great strides.”

Packard plays new position

Besides Perez taking reps at second base (two errors in the fifth), everyone played their typical position for five innings. That changed when the second squad entered for the sixth. The Tigers used Kingston Liniak in left, Jose De La Cruz in center and Kerry Carpenter in right, leaving Bryant Packard to fend for himself at first base.

Packard, 23, hasn’t played first base in his collegiate or professional career.

And he did a fine job.

“We’re making a move as an organization,” Graham said. “He’s not going to be just a first baseman. We just wanted to get him reps here so he’s comfortable. And if something happens in spring training that we need a first baseman, he can get more reps. We’re just trying to get guys reps with the bats.”

On a hard grounder to first base induced by Foley in the seventh, Packard was there to save his perfect inning with a slick backhanded pick.

“I don’t know if he knew that he fielded it,” Graham said, “but he made a good play on it.”

[ Tigers draftees Ryan Kreidler, Bryant Packard have been teammates before ]

Selected in the fifth round of the 2019 draft from East Carolina, Packard played in 39 games for the Tigers that year — 11 for Low-A Connecticut, 23 for West Michigan and five for Lakeland. He finished with a .296 batting average, three homers and 16 RBIs.

If the Tigers stop using Packard as an everyday outfielder, he projects as a first baseman and designated hitter. Assuming his bat continues to produce, he should be able to force his way to the majors, regardless of his position, within the next year or two.

“There’s not much pressure on these guys, so they’re not too nervous to do it,” Graham said about trying new positions. “It’s a great environment to develop and learn a new position. The main goal here is to get innings for the pitchers and at-bats for the guys. We’re gonna find a way, any way we can, to get these guys at-bats.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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