Torkelson: Minicamp provides head start on winning spot on Tigers’ opening day roster

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Nah, that wasn’t going to fly. Not even in a controlled scrimmage against two minor-league minicamp squads.

Phillies right-hander Nick Duron, pitching in the eighth inning of a 10.5-inning slog Tuesday in Clearwater, struck out Tigers’ infield prospect Colt Keith on three pitches. As Keith was walking back to the dugout, Duron had the temerity to yell, “Sit the (bleep) down.”

That did not sit well with the Tigers players, who immediately jumped up and started jawing back at Duron.

“We’re like, ‘What!?’” Tigers top prospect Spencer Torkelson said after a workout Wednesday. “I told him it was March 8. The season doesn’t start for another month. The whole dugout had Colt’s back.”

Oh yeah, the season may be a month away, but the competitive juices are flowing. There was even a friendly but loud disagreement during live batting practice on the back fields Wednesday between right-hander Keider Montero and outfielder Eric De La Rosa. They were arguing whether a ball De La Rosa slapped to the right side was a single or a ground out.

They hugged it out afterward.

For most in this camp, the start of the regular season is a fixed target. The minor-league season, unaffected by Major League Baseball’s labor dispute, will start on time. It’s not quite the same for players like Torkelson and No. 2-rated prospect Riley Greene, who have designs on starting the season in the big leagues in Detroit.

Both could find themselves moving down the hall into the big-league clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium by the end of the week if the players and owners can reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement.

“No doubt,” Torkelson said when asked if he was champing at the bit waiting for big-league camp to start. “I think the fans are. I think the players are. And I think the owners are. I think we’re all wanting to play baseball.”

You would think it’s a different kind of anxiety for Torkelson, though. His spot on the Tigers’ opening day roster is far from secured. He has to make the club. And had there been no lockout, he would have spent the last three weeks competing against players on the Tigers’ 40-man roster, playing Grapefruit League games against other big-league teams.

The evaluation process would have been much further along than it is now, having spent the last four weeks mostly doing drill work and live batting practice, playing in controlled scrimmages, all but one against his own teammates.

But if any of this is stressing Torkelson, you would never know it. He was asked if the wait was eating at him.

“Surprisingly not,” he said. “It’s nice being right here and being able to be in Lakeland. Putting in the work here, getting live at-bats and keep working on the all-around aspects of the game. I should be even more ready when the time comes to prove myself.”

The way he sees it, he’s getting a head start on the guys who are on the 40-man and ineligible to participate in minicamp.

“I’d bet those guys would love to be getting live at-bats right now and being out here,” he said.

True enough.

Torkelson, who was 0-for-3 in the Phillies scrimmage and had just one hit in the three intrasquad scrimmages last weekend, had a good morning Wednesday. He was stinging the ball against the pitching machine and launched a long home run against right-hander Angel Reyes in a live at-bat.

“That was the best swing of the camp so far,” he said.

Not that he’s been discouraged. Just the opposite.

“I’d say I’m right where I want to be right now,” Torkelson said. “I’m seeing the ball really well. I’m finding the barrel. The outs, I’m just a smidge off on timing. That’s really it. In the next couple of weeks that’s going to click and it’s going to be full-go.”

On the three ground-ball outs on Tuesday, he just got on top of them. Two of them were hit hard.

“A little hair out front,” he said. “Where in a week or two, those will be caught a little deeper and then…”

And then, boom. Ground balls became Tork bombs.

If Torkelson can win and hold down the first base spot this season, it greatly solidifies the infield for manager AJ Hinch. It would allow the Tigers to deploy, when healthy, a mostly set lineup, with Jonathan Schoop at second, Javier Baez at short and Jeimer Candelario at third. Miguel Cabrera would be the full-time designated hitter.

If Torkelson starts the year in Toledo, which will happen if the lockout continues to linger and more MLB games are lost, then Hinch would have to mix and match lineup combinations on the right side, with Schoop playing more at first base.

The Tigers, if the lockout continues through March, will have to decide what’s best for Torkelson’s development — letting him play Triple-A games or bring him to the belated big-league camp.

None of that is on Torkelson’s mind these days. He’s in full grind mode. Get to the yard early, eat and hit the cage before workouts start, go through the paces for two to two-and-half hours, come back, lift weights and then soak in the hot-cold tub for a while.

Rise, rinse and repeat.

“Any amount of time is an opportunity,” he said. “That’s the way all of us are looking at it. Give us an opportunity. Give us time to show ourselves and the rest will take care of itself.”

He isn’t even following the negotiations on social media or anywhere else. He’s got a guy for that.

“Yeah, my dad,” he said. “I get multiple texts a day from him. He’s my resource on that.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

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