Why the fixes for struggling Detroit Tigers prospect Spencer Torkelson are all in his head

Detroit Free Press

It was eating him up.

Spencer Torkelson, one of the Detroit Tigers’ most important prospects, struggled during spring training and the frustration was building.

“He would come home every day mad,” Jake Rogers, Torkelson’s spring training roommate, said Saturday. “He’s really hard on himself. I think that’s what makes him a really, really good player and why he will be a really good player.”

But Torkelson got just one hit in 27 at-bats, with 16 strikeouts, during spring training.

“I would just tell him to relax and he would get mad,” Rogers said. “He’d come home and be mad for about an hour. After a while, he would cool down and we talked. I’d be like, ‘Hey, man, just relax, you can’t build Rome in a day. It’s gonna take some time.’”

But Torkelson’s struggles have carried into the early season. He is trying to find his footing playing for the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Tigers’ High-A affiliate based in Grand Rapids, but he started the season going 1-16 with 10 strikeouts. (The Whitecaps moved up from the Low-A affiliate this season.)

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“You just flush it and remember, it’s baseball, and then, come back tomorrow with the same attitude and give it your best effort,” Torkelson said last week after making his professional debut in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

West Michigan Whitecaps infielder Spencer Torkelson waits to bat during practice Monday, May 3, 2021 at LMCU Ballpark in Comstock Park, MI.

Yes, Torkelson has said all the right things.

But the frustration can be seen behind the scenes.

“He’s probably one of the more competitive guys I’ve ever met,” Rogers said. “Obviously, you want to get a hit. You don’t want to strike out every day, you don’t want to ground out every at-bat, but yeah, we talked and he’s a good kid, and he’ll be fine.”

Yes, he’ll be fine. That’s what people in the Tigers organization continue to believe — if he would just relax.

But that fierce competitor inside Torkelson him hasn’t let him.

MORE SEIDEL: Tigers prospect Dillon Dingler: ‘God blessed him with a very special talent’

MORE SEIDEL: Tigers’ Torkelson had a spring training to forget — and that’s the plan

The engine of a rebuild

Torkelson carries both the blessing and the burden that comes with being the first pick in the draft.

The blessing is obvious: Torkelson got a record $8.4 million signing bonus from the Tigers after he was drafted out of Arizona State.

The burden is even more daunting. Every move has been scrutinized and the questions are unrelenting: How is he looking? Can he play third base? How soon will he get to Detroit?

Torkelson carries the weight of expectation as well as necessity. The Tigers need him to be great — nobody more so than general manager Al Avila, who has come under fire for the performance of the big league club and the slow pace of this rebuild.

And it would give this rebuild a needed boost if Torkelson could move quickly through the system.

“I just saw a guy who got mired in an uncomfortable setting and couldn’t get himself out of it for one spring training that no one cares about anymore,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said.

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Remember, nothing about this situation is normal.

Torkelson’s journey to the minor leagues has been off-kilter from the start because of COVID-19.

Thrown into the fire

Normally, a player would go from being drafted to playing rookie ball — a nice, smooth transition, playing against a bunch of guys who are all learning about professional baseball together.

After Riley Greene was drafted in 2019, he went to rookie ball, where he found his footing quickly and hit two home runs in nine games. Greene rode a wave of momentum to short-season Class-A Connecticut, where he played 24 games and then he moved to West Michigan, where he ended the year.

It was one confidence boost after the next for Greene.

Now, consider Torkelson’s year. His college baseball season was cut short in March because of the pandemic. He was drafted in June and then invited to summer camp at Comerica Park in July. In essence, he went from his couch to being on the same field as Miguel Cabrera.

Instead of playing rookie ball against other college guys who were just drafted, he went to the alternate site, facing pitchers who were trying to make the big league club.

And he never looked right or comfortable. He still hasn’t.

This is a guy who hit .337 in college with 54 home runs in 129 games.

This is a guy who hit .340 in 30 games in the Cape Cod League with 9 home runs (and 27 strikeouts).

This is a guy who was considered the safest pick in the 2020 draft.

He didn’t forget how to hit, but he has never struggled like this for this length of time.

He has looked confused at the plate, talking borderline strikes. Or he has tried to pull outside pitches.

It’s as if he’s guessing, instead of just letting his instincts take over.

“Struggles are okay,” Hinch said. “Psychologically, I think it’s OK for him to struggle a little bit and have a reminder that this game is hard, and you’ve got to continue to develop. He’s got things to work on.”

I’ve seen him play at every level from that camp at Comerica Park, to instructional ball in Lakeland, Florida to spring training, to High-A last week. My take mirrors Rogers’: Torkelson just needs to relax and stop thinking. Just needs to taste a little success to get his mojo back. Just needs to make some subtle adjustments to professional baseball. Just needs to learn how to carry the burden of being the No.1 pick.

Confidence can be like jet fuel for a hitter. But when it’s covered with frustration, the result can be ugly, which is what we saw in spring training and are seeing to start his minor league career.

“It’s tough,” Rogers said. “Guys find a weakness and they stick to it. I always tried to give him a little bit of advice here and there. I don’t know if he listened or not.”

The shortstop surprise

The pandemic created an unusual situation for shortstop Ryan Kriedler. After being drafted in 2019, he played in 60 games in short-season Class-A, hitting .232.

And then he lost all of 2020 because of the pandemic.

So how did he end up at Double-A Erie?

Earlier this spring, Kriedler started out in the Tigers’ minor league camp and was called up to some games with the big league club. He made the most of his opportunity, going 3-for-8 with a double and home run.

“He played in some games and started hitting,” Dave Littlefield, the Tigers head of player development, said.

The Tigers needed some infielders at the alternate site, and Kriedler went there and kept hitting.

“He’s a great-looking kid and a good defender,” Littlefield said.

When the Tigers front office assigned players to different levels, they wanted all of their young shortstops to play every day. Gage Workman, 21, went to Low-A Lakeland. A 2020 fourth round pick, Workman opened the season hitting .316.

Trei Cruz, 24, was assigned to West Michigan.

That left Kriedler, 23, for Erie, and he has responded by hitting a home run and three doubles in his first 20 at-bats.

“He’s extremely mature,” Littlefield said. “He’s very committed to being a professional and takes care of his body. If the bat comes, we could have a really good player.”

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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