| The Detroit News
What continues this autumn on the infield’s left side at Tigers Instructional Camp is an experiment.
It is worth repeating that word: experiment. A trial. An audition.
In slightly different parlance, it’s all a gamble.
Spencer Torkelson is playing third base – for now. Gage Workman is being deployed at shortstop – for now.
The chance both, or even one, ends up at those positions in Detroit within a few short seasons, or even months, is nothing to bet your home mortgage on.
First comes the bat. Both of these Tigers prospects, taken in June’s draft from Arizona State, must hit in a manner that makes Comerica Park a destination.
Torkelson, the first-overall pick in June’s draft, is a safe wager there. Workman, a fourth-rounder, has some persuasion ahead.
Next comes the matter of defense. It’s an imperative. Left-side infield defense is part of a mosaic that all championship teams feature. Boot the ball there, sacrifice some essential range there, and your would-be contender is in trouble.
So, it all must click: offense, fielding, throwing, with each skill complementing the other basic arts.
Does this sound like baseball strategizing? Or, is it yanking a slot-machine handle at a Las Vegas casino?
The Tigers concede something of the latter is involved.
“Truth of the matter is, our scouts felt Torkelson could play third base and Workman can play shortstop, and our analytics team wasn’t against it, either,” said Al Avila, who as Tigers general manager signs off on all recommendations and deployments.
“Jay Sartori (head of Tigers analytics, who had been evaluating Torkelson) came into the office and said: ‘You’ve got to move him to third base.’ This is after our scouts told me they were drafting him as a third baseman.”
And so it began, last July, after Torkelson checked into Comerica Park as one of the 60-person group that would play in Detroit and Toledo, all as 2020’s Major League season was at least partially pulled from COVID-19’s claws.
Torkelson, an acknowledged all-around talent who was a shortstop when he arrived at ASU before moving to first base, would shift to third base, all as a means to add more team-and-market luster to his big bat.
Workman, also a shortstop when he showed up at ASU, and like Torkelson an athlete good enough to play infield – or outfield – would slide from third base and return to short. This sustained a Tigers dream, namely the bonus they might get from a powerful 6-foot-4 switch-hitter should he be able to thrive at the infield’s cornerstone position.
“It was a unified decision,” Avila said, speaking mainly of Torkelson, but also of the Workman-to-short venture.
But a greater focus remains on Torkelson, all because the issue of his bat is as close to resolved, positively, as it can be for a prospect four months after he was drafted.
“I think he can do it,” Avila said of Torkelson’s cross-corner move to third. “Number one, he’s athletic enough, he has the tools to do it. And if he can do it, his value goes through the roof.”
Avila half-chuckled as he cut to a decision the team considers to be purely practical. A slugging third baseman is worth more to a team, and to baseball’s marketplace, than a first baseman of equal offensive clout.
A big shortstop, who likewise has big power, is that loftiest of lineup bonuses. Shortstops tend to carry lighter bats when greater defensive range tends to correspond with smaller bodies. Workman goes against the grain there in the Tigers’ long-term roster fantasies.
The Tigers also know this: A team that flaunts two plus-offensive players without forfeiting left-side defense is living in a potential penthouse-playoff abode.
Avila talked again of Torkelson.
“Quite frankly,” he said, in a dealer-hit-me-again voice, “if he’s horrible there, what’s the big deal in trying?”
Avila offers an example. A famous one.
Cabrera was a shortstop growing up, then a third baseman. What people tend to forget is that when Cabrera arrived with the Marlins in 2003 he was used in … left field.
Cabrera had the all-around skills to play just about anywhere, all before he returned to the infield for back-and-forth deployments at third base and first base. That early versatility, particularly his adequacy at third, made him an even more prized trade piece when the Tigers dealt for him in 2007.
Tigers evaluators, as well as scouts from other clubs, had generally the same view in June when Torkelson and Workman were brought aboard. They could play multiple positions. And perhaps well.
Still, the question persists. And the question is nowhere close to being answered.
Can either, or both, crack the big leagues as left-side infielders undergoing position conversion?
Avila begins with Torkelson.
“From what I’ve seen,” the Tigers GM said of a right-handed hitter who is 6-1, 205, “he has the arm, the hands, the footwork, and the athleticism.”
As for Workman …
“Again, he’s a tall guy, which doesn’t mean anything definitive. But he’s very athletic, with feet that move well, with good hands, and a really good arm.
“The tools are there to play shortstop.”
There have been too few chances, too few in-game opportunities for either player during Instructional Camp, or in Torkelson’s transitory time at Toledo, for the Tigers bosses to get a deep feeling on what’s possible or probable.
But it’s not only Avila who believes this is a chance worth taking.
Alan Trammell is a Hall of Fame shortstop who works as Avila’s assistant in a variety of ways, including helping tutor and evaluate Torkelson and Workman.
“I’ve got to admit, I like Torkelson at third,” said Trammell, who worked with Torkelson at Detroit and Toledo, and who has been continuing his counsel at Instructional Camp. “It’s definitely doable. We’ve gotten only a small taste so far, but with the athleticism, the movements, it’s something I believe he can do.
“We’ll see where it leads, but he’s definitely got it.”
Trammell has more personal perspective at shortstop, the position he played for 20 big-league seasons. He understands at Hall of Fame depths how difficult it is, how many details must be processed, how much alignment on precise scales must be met for a man to stick at short in the big leagues.
It means that, yes, the Workman move is longer in odds than is Torkelson’s shift.
“He’s got it just like Torkelson has that,” said Trammell, again adding emphasis to words he believes are self-explanatory. “Workman does a lot of things well.
“In just two days of games, just the athleticism he’s shown, I believe we can extend this (shortstop experiment) much farther along. I believe it’s very doable.
“I’m not going to say no – no, he can’t do it,” Trammell said, turning to a play Workman made during a game two weeks ago against the Blue Jays prospects. “He threw a nice, true four-seamer to first. And whether he’s throwing across the diamond from third base, or shortstop, his throws are very true, not sinking or sailing.
“The ball just comes off his hand different.”
There are so many adjustments, so much nuance, to playing left-side infield defense. For a third baseman moving to short, the learning curve is endless.
Trammell talked about one technique, alone, he has been working on as the Torkelson-Workman seminars continue.
It has to do with glove positioning. Having it at a level that best allows the quickest response to a hot ground ball.
“Just a little tweaking we’re doing with him (Torkelson) and Workman and the others,” Trammell said. “It will pay off in the long run.
“The game gets faster as they move up. Balls are hit harder more often. But if a good athlete has aptitude, you can get results.
“We just need them to get more game opportunities. More chances – more chances in a normal season. They need those game reps.
“We’re preparing them the best we can.
“I don’t know what else we can do.”
Instructional Camp continues through Nov. 8. Then, Trammell said, the homework – detailed, extensive, comprehensive plans and drills and discipline – will be assigned to each player ahead of next spring, when the Tigers, and all of baseball, hope a pandemic subsides and another lost minor-league season is avoided.
Until then, a blueprint is in place. Whether a couple of infielders can settle in, defensively, and with the bat, is a crapshoot that in baseball pays off even fewer times than Vegas.