Depending upon a fan’s focus, what’s going on throughout the Tigers farm chain isn’t, ultimately, as interesting as what Detroit’s minor leagues already portend eight months ahead of 2022 spring camp.
Some of those position kids now sweating in the Triple-A, Double-A and even Single-A bushes will be headed to Lakeland, Florida, next February with a chance to win a job in Detroit. Six weeks of games has moved four of them into range:
Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Dillon Dingler, and even Daniel Cabrera.
It doesn’t mean any of them will make AJ Hinch’s 26-seat Opening Day roster. It doesn’t mean a single one of them will see Detroit until later in 2022.
But it would be no surprise, none at all, if one or more play their way into the picture, much as two kids did 14-15 years ago by the names of Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya.
In order of probability based on what nearly 40 games have shown about the best of Detroit’s farm stock:
► Greene, outfield: He is 20 years old. He is handling, very well, an advanced level of baseball. The Tigers took a calculated risk in sending Greene straight to Double A when he hadn’t been exposed to a single full season of minor-league baseball.
But they did it understanding he had a rare package of talents that probably would benefit from the sophisticated pitching he would see at Erie.
Greene is holding up nicely: .256 batting average, .364 on-base percentage, .798 OPS, with six home runs. And, of course, he is playing lovely defense.
The likelihood is that the season’s second half will wear him down, as it does almost all players during their first full year of everyday games. This is a reality not inclined to improve his heavy strikeout rate (44 in those 34 games). But it will toughen him, all as he is learning steadily what sophisticated pitching is all about.
Again, next spring is probably too early to expect that Greene will win a seat on that team charter to Detroit. But don’t rule it out. A big Florida camp, which he’s capable of delivering, could put him in the picture for Hinch and front-office boss Al Avila.
► Torkelson, third base: He spent much of May scraping frost from his bat as everyone waited for Torkelson to shake off that traumatic spring in Lakeland and begin hitting in a manner that made him last year’s first-overall draft pick.
Now, he has become that brand of weapon, with enough early fury to win a Sunday promotion to Erie. The hits keep coming, many of them for extra bases, or good for a more leisurely home-run trot.
Whether he sticks at third base, where the Tigers have been planting him since he was drafted, is not terribly relevant. It’s all about Torkelson’s bat. If he keeps knocking down fences for the remainder of 2020, then shows up at Lakeland next spring busting up good pitching, the Tigers will find a home for him, maybe at his old station, first base.
The percentage bet, as with all four of these gents, is that Torkelson will need a tad more seasoning on the farm before he moves into fulltime work at Detroit. But you can make a greater mistake on these wagers by betting conservatively than more assertively.
Torkelson can hit. A guy with his pedigree who lights it up at Lakeland next spring, in an almost script-worthy purging of 2021’s Florida demons, would be quite the story, but not much of a shock.
Watch how the remainder of 2021 goes. If he keeps this recent stuff up – and expect that he will – Torkelson will head for Lakeland with the Tigers, at least privately, open to a sales pitch that he’s ready
► Dingler, catcher: This is another man likely to skip a grade as the Tigers go for a payoff from last year’s draft. He has been a two-way treasure and vindication for scouts who weren’t backing away from a northern talent (Ohio State) who hadn’t much of a track record ahead of last June.
He is splendid behind the plate. He is hitting steadily, and for power. He has athleticism that implies he’ll get better, rapidly, which is something he, like Torkelson, confirmed Sunday when the Tigers made him part of their Erie upgrades.
The Tigers haven’t had a franchise-grade catcher since Lance Parrish. They might well have gotten their man in Dingler. Again, sizing him up as a possible 2022 bright light will be one more reason to book that March trip to Lakeland.
This dude is good.► Cabrera, corner outfield: He is the longest-shot of all the long shots gestating ahead of 2022. He might also be one of the more advanced prospects in terms of pure hitting prowess.
Nothing much has been on display until recent days at West Michigan, but each week, you see the potential for his left-handed bat to blossom. The Tigers made him their competitive balance draft pick after the second round (No. 62 overall) last June, when most of us thought they would spend their second-round turn on Cabrera. He had about him a swing honed during his days at Louisiana State and a brand of mechanics most scouts very much liked.
He probably will carry on with his apprenticeship next spring, at Erie or Toledo. But remember this: Hinch took the Tigers manager’s job because he knew what was coming. Young blood is what he believes will help turn this often-moribund lineup into a more skilled, more furious batting order.
And the manager will be lobbying, when it’s a jump-ball, to get those kids into the fray when he believes his coaches and a newly shaped Tigers culture will help them settle in and do their part to win ballgames.
These are four to keep an eye on straight through September. You can bet their bosses in Detroit will be as they get ready for what could be a rocking, reeling spring-training reunion at Lakeland.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.