Henning: Spencer Torkelson’s next chapter in becoming Tigers’ franchise player begins

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
 |  Special to The Detroit News

For now, life is sweet and sunny. And familiar.

Spencer Torkelson lives in a condominium in Scottsdale, Arizona, which his Californian folks bought a few years ago as a means to more comfortably spend weekends at their son’s baseball games at Arizona State University.

The condo beats life in a spare room, or on a couch at a buddy’s place, of which Torkelson has many at his ASU alma mater.

From the condo each morning, Torkelson, who was the Tigers’ first pick and likewise the 2020 MLB Draft’s first overall pick last June, jumps into his Mercedes-Benz SUV and heads for Push Performance in Tempe, not far from ASU’s campus.

There he dives into a full range of high-caliber training and conditioning drills suited to either a Marine, or to a prospective big-league third baseman who is working to become what is colloquially known as a “franchise player.”

The winter routine will last only a few more days.

Next Friday, Torkelson will hop an eastbound flight and later that night will arrive at the Airbnb quarters in Lakeland, Florida, he plans to share with two other tinseled Tigers prospects: Riley Greene and Jake Rogers.

Torkelson half-snickered Friday at the thought of those three amigos maintaining something approaching an impeccable bachelor’s pad. He was speaking by way of a Zoom chat during a media interview and clearly savoring thoughts of getting on with an old-fashioned baseball season.

You know, a spring and summer when minor-leaguers actually play games — the kind that washed away in 2020 due to a pandemic?

“I was talking with one of my good friends,” Torkelson said, speaking of a buddy who, like Torkelson, is heading for a year somewhere in the minor leagues. “He said he hasn’t pitched a competitive inning since Aug. 28, 2019.

“That’s tough. I’m just excited to have a normal year.”

Or, at least as normal as a pandemic and rapidly arriving vaccines might make 2021.

As most Tigers students know, Torkelson is a 6-foot-1, 215-pound, right-handed slugger who played first base at ASU but who was notified about as soon as the Tigers drafted him that he would be shifting to third.

The theory was: First basemen are easier to find. Third basemen who can hit on the level of the No. 3-style slasher the Tigers and scouts everywhere believe he will become, are rare.

If all goes according to early plans and returns, Torkelson will be a more treasured asset to the Tigers — and at least as valuable to himself and to his long-term market value — if he can cut it at third.

The Tigers believe he can. Alan Trammell, the Hall of Fame shortstop and assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila, worked with Trammell last summer at Toledo. There, Torkelson was part of a hybrid 60-man taxi squad that meshed big-leaguers with blue-ribbon prospects when baseball’s MLB season, which had been whacked by COVID, reconvened in July for a 60-game run.

Trammell liked what he saw: fast hands, good arm, footwork that had potential. Torkelson, in Trammell’s view, was an athlete who once upon a time had been a shortstop and who could plausibly shift to one of the toughest positions on a baseball field: third base.

Scouts from other teams had said the same thing about Torkelson even before last June’s draft. Tigers’ sleuths held an identical thought.

But this remains a process. An evolution. Even, it might be said, an experiment.

Not that Torkelson sees anything but a long stint at an opposite-corner infield station.

“Extremely happy,” Torkelson said Friday. “Just want to get more repetitions.”

About those “repetitions.” They ideally come during a game. They happen when a hitter rips a pitch, maybe at 100-mph exit speeds or higher, either at the third-baseman’s anatomy or somewhere within a defender’s range.

Not easy, handling these cowhide-covered bullets. Torkelson, though, saw similar artillery attacks at first base during his Arizona State days. He isn’t altogether new at this.

“What carries over is being at a corner,” Torkelson explained. “Lefties (left-handed batters) are hooking a ball at first, and at third righties are hooking it at you.

“It’s a pretty similar play, except for the throw.”

Ah, yes. The throw. The all-essential laser that is dependent upon a cross-diamond heave that must move at fastball speeds and be on the money.

“The biggest adjustment,” Torkelson acknowledged, “is having an internal clock. To know when to get rid of it.”

In other words, you neither can afford to hurry the throw, nor to dawdle. You must know if the runner is a 100-meter sprinter, or maybe a guy who didn’t make the big leagues primarily because of his legs.

Trammell has worked to ingrain this creed, this sequence, into his newest left-side infield pupil and project.

“Tram’s advice is simple, but it goes a long way,” Torkelson said. “First rule: Catch the baseball. Second rule: Make an accurate throw to first base, or second base.”

There is choreography in all of this. Footwork is the foundation for making plays anywhere in an infield, with third base no less incumbent on sharp, fast, precise steps than shortstop.

The best means for learning how to best-handle ground balls at third is to field them coming from a professional hitter’s bat. The speed, the gyrations, the spin — it’s all part of the witch’s brew that is known as a “hot shot” at the hot corner.

Torkelson concedes he can’t do much about that. Not at Scottsdale this winter, where he is permitted to take batting practice against machines, and ground balls, at ASU’s baseball digs.

But leave it to the Sun Devils and to their hallowed baseball culture for an answer there.

Tracy Smith, the ASU head coach, has machines that during the offseason can fling all kinds of dipping, swerving, high-velocity grounders at his infielders.

Torkelson has been working this winter against these devil-dealing gizmos. 

He thinks they’ve paid off, as much as any non-game preparations can help a man still adjusting to a new job.

“It puts like a curveball-spin on it,” Torkelson said, speaking of the Sun Devils Mechanical Man. “It’s pretty fast.”

Whether “pretty fast” will describe Torkelson’s path to Detroit is not known. The consensus within Detroit’s front office, and anywhere else where professional baseball’s gestation periods are known, is that a man who turned 21 five months ago, who hasn’t played in a meaningful, competitive game since his ASU days, will need at least a full season in the minors.

Just as likely is that he will need a bit more buffing and polishing in 2022 before he arrives at Comerica Park.

But no one is excluding a speedier delivery date. Torkelson’s time at Toledo last summer, against a good deal of big-league-caliber pitching, might have earned him more crust than has been realized.

What can be expected is that he will likely begin the 2021 season, whenever it convenes, at Single-A West Michigan. The Whitecaps now are the high-A stop in Detroit’s farm, a short plane ride from Double-A Erie.

Torkelson appears comfortable with that plan.

“I’ve heard great reviews about West Michigan,” he said. “Riley Greene said to me that it was his favorite place to play.

“And he’s played in some pretty cool places.”

Cool, all right, is West Michigan. Just wait until an April game, Mr. Torkelson. He’ll learn that “cool” has a number of connotations.

But that doesn’t scare him, either.

Torkelson wants something that has nothing to do with crowds or climate or whatever.

“I just want to have a normal season,” he repeated, joining not only his baseball brethren but the rest of the world-at-large in longing for some old comforts and rhythms.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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