Chris McCosky | The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — A few days ago, manager AJ Hinch pulled prospect Spencer Torkelson aside to give him a heads up. Be prepared to get some work at first base as well as third base this spring.
“There’s just been so much talk about it, about him moving to third base, over the last year,” Hinch said. “I wanted to make sure he wasn’t getting mixed messages and I didn’t want to cloud his mind with anything.”
Torkelson’s response tells a lot about his character and his demeanor.
“He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I just want to play,’” Hinch said. “He’s like, just put me in the game and I’ll play wherever. He’s got that workman-type attitude that you like to see.”
Torkelson, the first overall pick in the draft last summer, played a couple of innings at first base Wednesday and is expected to get his first spring start Friday in Tampa against the Yankees — at third base. Don’t expect him to be overwhelmed by the experience.
Asked if it’s hit him that he’s in a big-league camp, again, he shrugged.
“I haven’t, but I can tell you my parents have,” he said. “My dad’s been a baseball fan his whole life. He gave me a text that said, ‘My own son in Major League spring training. I always dreamed of this but now it’s a reality — pretty cool.’
“I haven’t had that moment yet, but I am sure my family has.”
Truth be told, the only thing that seemed to impress him came when he showed up to the clubhouse Tuesday morning before getting on the bus to Bradenton.
“One of the craziest moments was showing up at the field for an away game and my bag was already packed,” he said. “I’m not used to that. What the heck. My cleats were cleaned. My cleats are never clean.”
A year ago at this time, Torkelson was the scourge of college baseball at Arizona State. Already projected throughout the industry to be the one-one, the first overall pick in the draft, he was getting the Barry Bonds treatment from opposing pitchers. He had 31 walks in 17 games. When he got a strike, he didn’t often miss — six home runs, .340 batting average.
Then came the shutdown. When he entered the game late in Bradenton and drew a walk, it was his first at-bat in an organized game against another team. He’d been through summer camp with the Tigers. He’d worked for two months at the alternate site in Toledo. He played in the instructional league.
Finally, he gets to face some real professional game action — albeit in exhibition games.
“It’s really difficult to compare the two,” he said, when asked about where his game is now, after the shutdown and the disjointed nature of his year. “You’re not facing 20-year-olds taking classes every day. You are facing 25-year-olds who’ve been doing this for a living for a couple of years.
“Which is fine. It’s great. I feel comfortable up there.”
And you know, he absolutely looks comfortable. Even when he does something on or off the field that reminds you that he’s just 21 and going through this stuff for the first time — like cutting his right index finger with a makeshift can opener (a corkscrew with a serrated knife at the end) or getting tripped up by the turf monster on a base running drill — he still pulls it off with aplomb.
Torkelson just owned it.
“I chose the wrong day to wear a pair of plastic spikes on brand new bases,” he said of his base running slip. “It kind of slipped under me. I couldn’t really give myself a break last week. I kind of went through it, but I came back stronger, I promise you.”
Hinch called him out, good-naturedly, in a couple of team meetings, much to the delight of the veteran players.
“I deserved it,” Torkelson said. “I mean, I took some heat in those meetings, but it was all in good spirits. I think we’re past that now.”
Nobody expected Torkelson to be overwhelmed by any of this. He’s been in the spotlight just about his whole baseball life — top recruit, top draft pick, etc. But what’s impressed Hinch and others is his lack of entitlement and pretentiousness. He’s an anti-diva.
As Hinch said, he’s kept his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut.
“He’s quiet by nature,” Hinch said. “I don’t think that he’s going to be the most outspoken player in camp, maybe ever. He’s internally focused. But it’s impressive to me when you have a high pick, it’s like we put a red jersey on him. Everybody knows who you are. Everybody knows how much money you’ve got. Everybody knows the opportunity he has.
“But he’s just going to go work. He takes his ground balls and does his cage work. He’s kept his mouth shut and that’s a positive trait in his first camp.”
Torkelson said his experience in Toledo last summer helped with his comfort level here. It allowed him to slow things down and settle in as a pro. When he stepped into the box on Tuesday, sure his adrenalin was pumping, but he was in control of the at-bat – from getting ahead in the count 2-0, to getting two huge hacks, to working the walk on 3-2.
“Just keep it simple,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s the same batter’s box I’ve been hitting in since I started playing baseball. That gives you some peace up there. I don’t know how many pitches I’ve seen in my life, but a lot.
“Knowing that going into every at-bat makes it easier.”
Intellectually, Torkelson knows he’s not going north with the Tigers. His first stop is expected to be West Michigan, High A. But in his heart, he’s going to fight to stay until the day they send him to minor-league camp.
“My mindset is, you are trying to make the team,” he said. “I know the chances are very limited. But if that’s my mindset, then I will put in the work and everything will fall into place and I’ll become a better baseball player in every aspect of the game.
“And that will help my performance at the highest level.”
Beyond his years.