Inside the mishaps of Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson in first MLB camp, and how he’s learning

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — There are high hopes for Spencer Torkelson, the Detroit Tigers‘ prized prospect and 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick.

After watching him crush a barrage of home runs with a smooth swing at Arizona State it makes you wonder what will happen next.

Steamrolling through the minor leagues? Reaching the majors by 2022 Opening Day? Bringing winning baseball back to Detroit and its starving fans?

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Not so fast.

Try slicing his finger opening a can of beans, because he improvised — with fellow prospects Riley Greene and Jake Rogers — rather than driving five minutes to Walmart to buy a can opener. Not much describes a group of prospects better than that story.

“The boys were hungry, and I was in charge of dinner that night,” Torkelson, 21, said Thursday. “I was making corn salsa. There was a can of beans to put in. The Airbnb didn’t have a can opener. … We learned our lesson.”

Try standing in front of the entire team (including Miguel Cabrera and other seasoned veterans) the next morning, while manager AJ Hinch jokingly chewed him out. The minor injury, which required a few stitches, led to a few missed spring training games.

“I deserved it,” Torkelson said

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He also slipped on first base and took some heat, in good fun, from Hall of Famer Alan Trammell, one of the greatest to ever don the Old English “D.” That happened because he wore fresh plastic spikes on brand-new bases — a rookie mistake, literally.

“I couldn’t really give myself a break last week,” Torkelson said. “I kind of went through it. But I came back stronger, I promise.”

If anything, these mishaps serve as a reminder that Torkelson is developing as a person — not only as a baseball player. Sure, he has the finances of a big-timer, thanks to an $8,416,300 signing bonus, yet there is still so much to learn about life and baseball. (After all, he does live in a rental house with two teammates and dug into a can with his bare hands.)

Torkelson, as lauded as he is, isn’t perfect. He is an advanced hitter, and he should move quickly through the minors, but the major-league experience is new to him.

“One of the craziest moments was showing up to the field for the away game (Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates), and my bag was already packed,” Torkelson said. “I’m not used to that. Like, what the heck? My cleats were never clean.”

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It’s difficult for Torkelson to compare chasing (and breaking) Barry Bonds’ home-run record at Arizona State to taking swings against professionals in spring training. Very little is the same. He isn’t taking classes anymore; he is still getting used to his early morning alarm set by the grueling spring schedule.

Plus, his opponents aren’t fellow college kids. They’re adults.

“You just got to keep it simple,” Torkelson said. “At the end of the day, it’s the same batter’s box that 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 lifetime, but I’ve seen a lot. Knowing that going into every at-bat makes it a lot easier.”

Torkelson doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the development process. He’s quite calm. Big-league spring training, while it presents challenges, doesn’t feel like too much to handle.

His father’s reaction, however, is full of emotion.

“My own son, in major-league spring training,” Rick Torkelson texted his son in the early stages of camp. “I always dreamed of it, but now it’s a reality.”

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Torkelson continues to adjust to a new role at third base, but Hinch has a game plan. He promises to occasionally use Torkelson at first base, where he played in college, keeping him fresh at both positions.

This creates two avenues for his arrival.

“In the season, I think he’s going to play primarily third base,” Hinch said Wednesday, “but I think it’s always important for him to get a game or two a week at first base and continue to develop that part of his game as well. We can’t perfectly predict exactly when his opportunities are going to come, or even where they are.”

After the Tigers told him to nix the first-base glove this offseason, Torkelson is reaching for it again.

“It’s just becoming a more complete ballplayer, being able to play third base, first base, even a corner outfield position,” Torkelson said. “Anywhere on the field to get in the lineup is considered my position in my head.”

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See, Torkelson understands what it takes to achieve MLB status.

There is a learning curve to his development, from strikeouts to sliced fingers, and from getting comfortable at new position to shaking off awkward tumbles on the basepaths. Yet he is dedicated to his craft.

And he already notices his mentality — confident but humble — is paying off.

“I’m more comfortable,” Torkelson said. “Getting thrown into that summer camp (in July) fresh out of college was really eye-opening. The game was moving a little faster. But now, it’s more laid back, and I feel like I’m getting more out of it.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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