Why Detroit Tigers fans should take this crop of prospects seriously

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — When turning onto Al Kaline Drive this time of year, there’s a feeling thatbetter days are coming for the Detroit Tigers, losers of 345 games in a four-year span.

The parking lot of Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium is nearly empty. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited fans’ ability to see Tiger Town’s new faces, namely 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson.

[ Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson digests home run after crushing a fastball ]

Riley Greene — drafted No. 5 overall in 2019 — bats second in the order, followed directly by Torkelson. They’re surrounded by Parker Meadows, Daniel Cabrera, Gage Workman, Kody Clemens and Trei Cruz.

Don’t forget why these players are in the instructional league. It’s because the Tigers have lost 64% of their games in the last four years, winding up with marquee draft selections in hopes of (someday) crawling back into postseason contention and building a dynasty. Many of them won’t receive a full-time workload in the majors until at least 2022.

But the future of the organization is hungry for greatness.

“There was a lot of attention at the time that some people felt like we had a good draft,” Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield said. “Certainly looks that way from my end here. Some talented-looking athletes.”

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

A banner still hangs outside the ballpark to promote the ill-fated spring training, which was shut down in mid-March because of the virus. This signage spotlights two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera and left-hander Matthew Boyd.

One day, the banner will show mugs of Torkelson and right-hander Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft. Or Greene and left-hander Tarik Skubal. Or Isaac Paredes, who made his MLB debut this year, and fireballer Matt Manning. Or Cabrera (Danny, not Miggy) and righty Alex Faedo.

“It’s been since 1984 that Detroit’s won the World Series,” Daniel Cabrera said. “I think it’s time that we bring one back soon.”

Added Greene: “That’s just kind of the thing that is in the back of our head that makes us want to work that much harder.”

For subscribers: Why Riley Greene might be the best Detroit Tigers prospect of all

Greene, Torkelson lead

Greene and Torkelson stay in the same hotel and ride to the ballpark together. Since Torkelson was drafted in June, the pair of prospects have grown close. They bonded in summer camp this July and at the alternate training site in Toledo in August and September.

Once November rolls around, it will be five straight months of the Greene and Torkelson show before they go their separate ways. Then they’ll reconvene in February for spring training. There’s a chance Greene plays a majority of the 2021 season for Double-A Erie. If Torkelson progresses quickly, he might join him.

“When it comes to him trying to adjust to things, I think he’s going to adjust very well,” said Greene, who hit .271 with five homers and 28 RBIs in 57 games between three levels of the farm system in 2019. “He’s got a really good swing, hits the ball for contact and power. Really good eye. There’s gonna be no problems for him adjusting.”

For subscribers: What Spencer Torkelson showed in Detroit Tigers instructional league game

Torkelson isn’t concerned, either. Through two-plus seasons at Arizona State, he crushed 54 home runs with a .337 batting average, 110 walks and 104 strikeouts. He looks forward to helping take Detroit back to the top of baseball’s hierarchy with Greene by his side.

“It’s pretty special. It’s real,” Torkelson said. “We talked about it (Monday). It rained a little bit, and (Hall of Famer) Alan Trammell is like, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to deal with a wet ball now and then, especially in October.’ That gave me some goosebumps. That was pretty cool.”

Even if Greene and Torkelson can’t meet up in 2021, it won’t be long before they’re each wearing the Old English “D” in Comerica Park.

“We’ve said it before,” Greene said. “We’re like, ‘Hopefully, one day, we’ll be up there together.’ … He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s a really good guy, works really hard. He wants the best for everyone. Just the person he is, it’s pretty impressive.”

The second wave

The rebuild can be categorized into two sections: pitchers and hitters. The first wave, or the drafted pitchers, includes Mize, Skubal, Manning and Faedo. Each of them should get opportunities to toss in the majors in some capacity in the 2021 season.

Mize and Skubal already debuted in 2020, so they’re in a position to make the Opening Day roster as members of the starting rotation. A few offensive players in this category acquired from trades — Paredes, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers — have appeared in the majors and will compete for jobs in spring training.

“Back in the day, when I was in Toledo, I was foreseeing the future,” Paredes said in August. “I realized our future is going to be very good and pretty competitive. We’re going to be fighting for a spot in the playoffs.”

The second wave, which consists of drafted hitters, is just beginning to settle in. Part of that process is the instructional league, where members of the 40-man roster aren’t allowed.

Greene looks the most MLB-ready of these batters. His swing is balanced; his mechanics look smooth; he carries himself like a professional rather than a bushy-tailed newbie. He knows how good he is and how good he can become.

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

“My confidence is the highest it’s ever been,” Greene said. “When I was at the alternate site in Toledo, my swing got way better. I feel way more comfortable with my swing. This swing is going to be the swing I have for a long time.”

Torkelson has the makeup of a hitter happy to take his walks with the capability of 25-plus home runs and a respectable batting average. On Monday, he crushed a 375-foot two-run homer in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays. His transition to third base, however, remains a work in progress.

“I love it,” Torkelson said. “I like having something to work on. No one is perfect, and I like working hard. So, having third base as another stepping stone to get somewhere. Give me a couple more in-game ground balls and some more repetitions in practice, and I’m right there with the best of them I believe.” 

There are other newcomers in Tiger Town, too.

Workman, drafted in the fourth round, is a surprise. His instincts at shortstop and ability to battle in at-bats show how advanced he is, despite not playing an organized game in months. He has the tools to sky-rocket up the farm system in 2021 and become the steal of the 2020 draft.

Cruz faces pressure as a third-generation player, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Jose Cruz Sr., and his father, Jose Cruz Jr. They combined for 31 seasons and over 3,700 MLB games. 

There were uncertainties about where the Tigers would use Cruz in the infield, but he has taken his reps at shortstop and looks smooth in all aspects. His switch-hitting bat needs improvement, and it’s unclear if his projected power will ever show up.

Cabrera isn’t going to be a speed demon on the bases. He won’t dazzle in the outfield, meaning he’s probably going to end up as a left fielder. Still, he looks the part of an athletic slugger: 6-foot-1, 205 pounds (he’s added 15 pounds since March).

[ Why one Detroit Tigers prospect is trusting the ‘hit doctor’ to elevate his game ]

Cabrera’s mindset, as a player who slipped from a projected first-rounder to No. 62 overall, is comparable to others in the rebuild.

They want to revive the Tigers with a World Series celebration.

“I don’t play this game to be a first-round pick,” Cabrera said. “I play this game to be a Hall of Famer, to win a World Series. I got picked where I got picked. It is what it is. I can’t control that. I’m happy that I’m in Detroit. Now, it’s just working every day to bring a World Series back to Detroit and be a Hall of Famer.

“I don’t play this game just to be an average Joe. I don’t want to just make it to the bigs. I want to be an impact player. I want to win World Series, hopefully, MVPs and have my name in Cooperstown. That’s why I play.”

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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