COMSTOCK PARK, Mich. — The last time Spencer Torkelson played in a regular-season game, he was batting second and playing first base for Arizona State. That was on March 8, 2020, and the Sun Devils were getting ready for a Pac-12 season that never got going.
It isn’t as long ago as it has been for many Minor Leaguers who didn’t have a season last year, period. With everything that has changed for Torkelson since then, it seems like a lifetime ago.
After going first overall in the MLB Draft last June, reporting almost immediately to Summer Camp and then to the alternate site, playing instructional ball in the fall, then facing Major Leaguers in Spring Training, Torkelson will begin his pro career Tuesday for High-A West Michigan. It’s his first step on the path to Detroit, and his first chance at the daily grind of a pro career.
“I’m really excited,” Torkelson said Monday. “I think I speak for everyone saying we miss true competition. Spring Training’s fun, but the stats don’t count. No one really cares if you win or lose. But right now, in a regular season, it means something. It’s easier to play when it means something.”
Torkelson is one of several 2020 Draft picks who will begin with the Whitecaps, including second-rounders Dillon Dingler and Daniel Cabrera and third-rounder Trei Cruz. Torkelson, obviously, is the star. His majestic home runs and college production are fresh enough that anticipation has built.
He’s the first No. 1 overall pick to come through West Michigan. Neither Matt Anderson (1997) nor Casey Mize (2018) were ever Whitecaps, largely because the team was Low-A back then. It’s a great setting to introduce players to pro ball, though a little different this year with players staying in hotels and apartments instead of with host families.
Despite the publicity, Torkelson arrives with humility. Part of it is his natural personality. When asked the first thing he bought after being drafted — yes, it was a car — he mentions it almost sheepishly. He talks about success as a group, not as an individual.
“I think I’m most looking forward to playing with a team again with a common goal of winning,” Torkelson said. “That brings out the best in all of my teammates and everyone. That’s probably what I’m looking forward to most, besides having a full crowd cheering us on.”
The Whitecaps, like the Tigers, will open at 20 percent capacity under Michigan’s COVID-19 restrictions. That could expand quickly under a plan announced last week by Governor Gretchen Whitmer that ties capacity for sporting events to vaccination rates across the state. Whatever the capacity, Torkelson will likely be a draw when the Whitecaps open their home schedule on May 11.
Torkelson’s personality helped him through a humbling Spring Training. His can-opening incident in Lakeland was a fun story despite the cut to his hand that sidelined him for a few days. Once he began playing, he was reminded of what Major League hitters have been saying all year: Hitting big league pitching is hard. Torkelson batted 1-for-27 with four walks and 16 strikeouts in Grapefruit League games.
Fellow Tigers prospect Riley Greene, who shared a house with Torkelson at Spring Training, talked him through it.
“I said, ‘Hey man, it’s your first Spring Training. It’s all good. It’s going to be tough, because we’re facing really good arms, like every day,’” Greene said Saturday from Double-A Erie, where he’ll open the season. “I just told him to hang in there. He took it pretty well, I’d say. He was having good ABs, he was playing the field really well, so I wouldn’t say he struggled, but that he definitely learned a lot throughout the way and that’s what it’s all about.”
Torkelson rolled with it. He also got another Spring Training, this time on the Minor League side under less of a spotlight.
“I mean, Spring Training is called Spring Training for a reason,” Torkelson said. “It definitely prepared me for the season.”
It’s now in West Michigan manager Brayan Peña’s hands to continue that. The plan is for Torkelson to play most of his games at third base, but also see some action at first.
“I think our No. 1 goal is for Tork to go out there and have fun,” Peña said. “God blessed him with a lot of talent, but at the same time, our goal is for him to go out there and enjoy what he does and continue to get better every day and get closer to the big league level.”