Henning: Better drafts, and new thinking, might finally be changing Tigers farm system

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — I’m sitting here on an 80-degree Saturday afternoon in the press box at Marchant Stadium — or, rather, Publix Field at Marchant Stadium as the sponsorship dollars have determined. 

An executive decision has been made that, in fact, you can offer some basic critiques and see clear distinctions in kids the Tigers have called to order the past 10 days. This, it should be explained, has happened at an Instructional Camp set to run through Nov. 8 and designed to salvage 2020’s wreck of a minor-league season.

Sharing these thoughts is done for reasons not entirely arrogant.

We have seen, over decades, the back lots at TigerTown, and what has — and more times than not, what hasn’t — been in abundance or even in short supply.

It’s talent. Or, maybe more accurately, degrees of talent.

More: Tigers’ RH prospects Foley, De Jesus flash high-octane stuff during instructional game

There’s the overarching difference as the Tigers head into 2021 for who-knows what kind of baseball season a pandemic will allow. Detroit’s kiddie corps is more skilled, clearly so. There are likely big-leaguers, and probably a few very good ones.

This, mostly, is a product of bad seasons leading to great draft positions. But other clubs’ scouts who showed up in nice numbers to watch the Blue Jays and Pirates kids tackle Detroit in a pair of games the past week at Lakeland will give you similar reports about the Tigers’ new blood.

Here are one guy’s notes, with a five-inning intra-squad game Saturday part of the mix:

Spencer Torkelson, third base: If he isn’t hitting a ball hard, he tends to walk. That was Torkelson’s profile at Arizona State. That’s what he showed this week in three games:

►Drive to the 420-foot mark in center field. Walk. And then another walk.

►Seared double down the left-field line (106 mph, exit velocity). And another walk.

►Blistered liner Saturday (exit velo also 106) that nearly amputates the left arm of third baseman Colt Keith and goes for a single. Then, another walk.

Torkelson, of course, has a jump on Instructional Camp pitching. He spent part of July as well as August and September either playing with the big guys at Detroit or with the taxi squad at Toledo. 

He also was good enough, a few weeks out of college, to make those seasoned teams. What you see in a player who only seven weeks ago turned 21 are quiet hands and a bat that’s a blur. How he fares at third base is a question to be answered over a longer haul. But this guy was June’s first overall pick for a reason. 

More: Henning: Tigers job likely a good one — for A.J. Hinch or whoever Al Avila picks

He will be making a deep indentation on baseball in Detroit, and soon.

Riley Greene, center field: Same story as Torkelson in that Greene, who just turned 20, was talented enough to play in Detroit and Toledo. 

He played there for the same reason Torkelson made the cut. Greene is a franchise-grade talent, which is what you sometime get with a fifth-overall draft pick. The Tigers did their homework on one of the more gifted kids on any team’s farm.

I mentioned on Twitter the other day that seeing Greene swing is worth the price of a ballgame ticket. 

No exaggeration. 

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That left-handed stick he swings is the product of athleticism and some superb coaching he has gotten from his dad, who played college baseball and who runs a sophisticated swing-clinic outside of Orlando, Florida.

Greene led off Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays with a scorched liner down the right-field line he turned into a triple. He later hit a ball just as hard to the center-fielder who was lucky to be standing in its line in front of the warning track. Greene added a triple Saturday.

He doesn’t chase. He recognizes pitches supremely. He runs. He fields. He is going to pair with Torkelson to bring the Tigers quite a back-to-back lineup parcel.

What you know from your own conversations with these two lads, and from all other reports — teammates, managers, coaches, front-office folks, etc. — is that Torkelson and Greene already make the All-Star ballot as gentlemen. That, by the way, doesn’t hurt. 

Gage Workman, shortstop: He might be the most intriguing kid in camp. A scout for a prominent 2020 playoff team said, confidentially, that Workman was Detroit’s steal from the 2020 draft. The scout said he had pushed his team to draft Workman as early as the second round. 

Raw athleticism, the scout said, headed by a bat that was just beginning to blossom as COVID-19 ripped apart 2020’s college season, would have made Workman a pick as early as the “sandwich” segment between first and second rounds had ASU carried on.

Workman is 6-foot-4 and a switch-hitter. It’s his power upside that most excited the scouts — and the Tigers. 

More: Fifth-round pick Colt Keith, 19, already growing on Tigers

More on him coming in a Monday story in the Detroit News. But you’ll want to keep a bright light on Workman next year and beyond, particularly if he can stick at short. The play and throw he made on a slow roller Wednesday explained, at the very least, why the Tigers are giving him a shot there.

Wilkel Hernandez, right-handed starter: This was a young pitcher the Tigers analytics gurus said three years ago could be a prize. Fans didn’t know much about him, or care a whole lot, given that he was part of what looked like a nondescript trade return for Justin Upton.

But what he showed in a couple of turns this week was imposing: fastball at 97, nice slider and change, and he was burying a bunch of those pitches. He is only 21. He is 6-3 and has a smoothness, an easy whip, to his delivery that leaves you hungry to see his next serve.

Angel De Jesus, right-handed reliever: He cut to pieces a trio of Pirates kiddies Friday. And you knew why: fastball spotted at 94, tough slider, and a change-up that’s helpful when relievers typically need only a pair of quality pitches.

His work Friday could have been written off as a 10-minute stint against prospects with pink cheeks. Except that it was pretty much a continuation of what De Jesus had shown in 2019 at West Michigan and Lakeland. His manager at Lakeland, Andrew Graham, who worked Friday’s game for the Tigers against Pittsburgh, was the first to say Friday that what De Jesus did in his single-inning shift was more than an illusion.

De Jesus is 23, so it’s time for Double-A in 2021, should there be Double-A ball in 2021. But this is the kind of pitcher who could jump, rapidly, and find his way into a Tigers bullpen that no longer can be afraid to give kids the ball.

Jason Foley, right-handed reliever: Biggest jump among any of the Tigers tender relievers. And, still, the best story, given that he wasn’t even drafted four years ago ahead of the Tigers signing him out of Sacred Heart University.

Foley was throwing 100 mph when the Tigers pulled him off the New York-Connecticut sandlots. Then, Tommy John surgery. He came back last year, got his moorings, but knew the heater, even at 100, was too flat.

Here’s where analytics make a difference, as they do in any facet of big-league development: The science guys determined Foley needed a two-seam fastball and slider.

Easier said than done. But he added both, and both are working. When you can throw a high-90s sinker, you have something special going, as a guy named Mickey Lolich knew back in his heyday. The slider is potential gravy.

Foley destroyed batters Friday — with his new arrow, his two-seam, a wipeout pitch.

These are the farm-system stories that make for more than entertaining narratives. They can make all the difference in winning baseball games.

Kody Clemens, second base: Something other than his name suggests he’s going to find his way to the big leagues. He had a couple of hard ground-single RBIs through a shift this week, which is no big deal, particularly when Clemens was able to play some Independent League ball this summer in Texas.

But even last summer, Clemens was hitting the ball for power at Lakeland, including four put-outs to the warning track in a single game. 

What impressed as much Wednesday was that he made all the plays at second base, and made them well. This included a pop-up to right field that he neatly grabbed before whirling and firing a throw home that held the runner at third.

Little things. But not so little. 

The Tigers have a gigantic hole at second base. Odds are probably long when he’s 24, but dismissing Clemens seems dangerous.

Surprising overall development (maybe): Could this Tigers system be turning the corner? Batters working deep counts? Laying off fringe pitches? Pumping-up pitch-counts? Striking out a few thousand fewer times than would be customary during a typical year on the Tigers farm?

 Look, it’s 2020. We’ve already seen that anything is possible.

But unless the past week’s approaches, mentally and tactically, were the mirage they might well prove to be, there has finally kicked into the Tigers cosmos a deeper, more ingrained philosophy on at-bats.

Some of this comes with new talent, no question. Torkelson knows as much about taking a walk as he does about hitting a ball 430 feet. He showed that at ASU. Greene, likewise, is already a shrewdie when it comes to pitch pickiness.

But there were other signs this week that maybe, just maybe, a more astute ethos is in place as the Tigers school their kids.

As for what, exactly, might be seen in the Tigers hatchery in 2021, that, obviously, is open to discussion, beginning with chances there even will be a minor-league calendar after 2020 was cashiered.

But what can be said, with reasonable conviction, after a week of inspecting new flesh at Lakeland is that this isn’t your father’s barren Tigers farm. All that losing in Detroit the past few years carried at least a single dividend: a farm system that’s more farm, less desert. 

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