When will Detroit Tigers’ Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson debut? GM Al Avila weighs in

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila won’t put a timetable on the big-league arrivals of third baseman Spencer Torkelson and outfielder Riley Greene.

That would be counterproductive, he thinks.

Torkelson and Greene — the No. 1 pick in 2020 and No. 5 pick in 2019, respectively — know the organization values them as franchise cornerstones and the pieces providing hope for the future. They are key to completing the rebuild, a process the Tigers started in 2017 but probably won’t emerge from until 2022.

[ Why Tigers fans should take this crop of prospects seriously ]

Sharing a projected year for their MLB debuts could spoil their development, Avila said. That’s not a part of his formula, just as it wasn’t for 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize or fellow 2018 draftee and pitching prospect Tarik Skubal — who both debuted in the 2020 season. 

But Avila watched summer camp at Comerica Park in July. He got reports from the alternate training site in Toledo this August and September. In October, he made his way to Lakeland, Florida, home of the Tigers’ spring training complex, for instructional league camp.

From Avila’s perspective, Torkelson and Greene are already beyond their years.

“Riley Greene and Torkelson included in that, they are advanced bats,” Avila told the Free Press on Friday. “Greene, being a high school kid, high schoolers usually take a little bit longer. He’s really advanced. I would say it’s an advanced bat, advanced approach and advanced outlook on him. Torkelson, from a college perspective, is also an advanced bat. Unfortunate thing is, he didn’t get 500 at-bats this year, but that doesn’t mean he can’t catch up.

“We feel they’re advanced guys that should move probably a little bit faster than the average guy. We feel that way, but I’m not going to put a timeline on it.”

Make no mistake, this isn’t just Avila shoving propaganda. There’s in-game evidence that Torkelson and Greene are advanced, at least by Class A standards. Those are the types of pitchers they’re facing in the instructional league, and it’s clear they are well ahead.

Each player battles deep into counts, showcasing strike zone recognition. When Torkelson isn’t crushing home runs, as he did Monday against Toronto Blue Jays starter Luis Quinones (Low-A in 2019), he draws walks, drives doubles and rips singles.

[ Why Torkelson’s real development for Tigers is a secret to many ]

Torkelson’s response to his two-run homer in a 2-2 count — with Greene on first base from a walk — further exemplifies his knack for the professional game. Through 129 career games for Arizona State, the 21-year-old had a .337 batting average, 54 homers and 130 RBIs.

“My two-strike approach is always sitting on a heater away,” Torkelson said Monday. “If you sit on a heater away and try to hit it over the second baseman’s head, your eyes will see that off-speed pitch, and then the inside fastball is just a reaction.

“But it also helps to have Riley on first base. He has some speed, and you got to think the pitcher doesn’t want to throw a curveball because he could be stealing. That’s just a free bag for Riley. So, it gives you more confidence that he’s going to throw a heater.”

That response encourages Avila.

Torkelson’s development at third base, however, is still in progress. He rates himself 10-out-of-10 at first base (where he played in college) but an 8/10 at third base. The Tigers don’t expect to switch up their plans — Torkelson is still the third baseman of the future, despite the organization’s lack of depth at first base.

“The entire staff, whether it be in the front office, the analytical guys, our scouts, they all felt that he had the athletic ability to play third base,” Avila said. “The footwork, the soft hands, plenty of arm and plenty of athleticism. If he can do it, his value goes up tremendously.”

[ What Torkelson showed in Tigers instructional league game (for subscribers) ]

Meanwhile, Greene has flourished since playing 57 games in the minors in 2019, including 24 each for Low-A Connecticut and Single-A West Michigan. He had a .271 batting average with five homers and 28 RBIs. The 20-year-old said his swing feels better than ever before, and he expects his current mechanics and approach to stick for the remainder of his career.

On Oct. 14 against the Blue Jays, Greene tripled to right field. Three days later, in an intrasquad scrimmage, he walked and tripled to the right-center field gap. And on Monday, he worked a six-pitch walk, after going down 2-2 in the count, to set up Torkelson’s two-run blast to left field.

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

“Probably one of the best things for me,” Greene said Oct. 14 about his time in summer camp and with the reserve squad. “I learned a lot about myself as a player. I was there to get better. It worked.”

Avila wishes Torkelson and Greene would have played in the minors this season — the minor-league season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic — but he isn’t going to complain.

Participating in summer camp and at the alternate training site provided benefits, as well. And the Tigers hope the long-term effects pay dividends in Detroit, quite possibly sooner rather than later for Torkelson and Greene.

“He’s facing guys that are throwing hard with good velocity on a regular basis,” Avila said about Torkelson’s performance in Toledo. “He’s seeing good relievers come in with different arsenals. The quality of pitching he was facing on a regular basis, and you can put Riley Greene into that mix, was a higher-caliber pitcher than he probably would have faced in the minor leagues when he started.

“It was OK for the development part. Not great. But we take what we can get, and I think he handled it very well. Right now, in instructional league, he’s doing even better from an offensive perspective.”

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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