Are Tork, Greene closing in on roster spots with Tigers?

Detroit Tigers

As Spring Training began, Tigers officials were candid in saying that top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene would be given genuine opportunities to make the Opening Day roster.

One week before the start of a highly anticipated season in Detroit, the close friends are on the verge of fulfilling their dream of debuting together in the Major Leagues.

To the extent that Greene, 21, and Torkelson, 22, have been tasked with playing their way onto the Major League club, the numbers suggest they are doing so. Torkelson has an .851 OPS while accumulating the most at-bats of any Tiger in Grapefruit League play. Entering Tuesday, Greene’s 1.383 OPS was the second highest of any Spring Training hitter who had yet to debut in the Majors (min. 15 spring at-bats).

“We want them to make the team,” Tigers general manager Al Avila told MLB.com Tuesday morning. “That’s our hope. That would mean they’ve been successful and are in a position to help us make the playoffs this year.”

Context is crucial when evaluating Spring Training numbers, and Avila noted that the pair has consistently put forward quality at-bats when facing frontline pitching in the Grapefruit League, as opposed to capitalizing in late-inning at-bats against mostly Minor League arms.

“They’re not getting first-pitch fastballs that they can ambush for home runs,” Avila said.

Avila stressed that no final decisions have been made about Greene and Torkelson, as team officials continue meeting daily about roster composition. The GM did say that service-time considerations are “not at all” a factor. For an organization that has missed the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons, a return to October baseball is the foremost objective — as evidenced by the pricey offseason signings of Opening Day starter Eduardo Rodríguez and two-time All-Star shortstop Javier Báez.

Particularly with an expanded postseason field, Avila is aware that one game in April could be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. The Blue Jays finished one game back of a playoff spot last year; the Mariners missed by two. Both clubs won more games than the eventual World Series champion Braves. Avila doesn’t want to face feelings of regret, if he were to bring anything less than his best available roster to face the White Sox on April 8.

“If we decide to keep them in the Minor Leagues,” Avila said of Greene and Torkelson, “the only reason would be if we felt they needed more time to develop.”

Ironically, Torkelson’s struggles last spring — 1-for-27 with 16 strikeouts — are reassuring to Avila now. Torkelson’s slump extended into the regular season, before he broke out in late May and slugged his way to two promotions. He finished the year at Triple-A Toledo and hit 30 home runs in 121 games overall.

“I think if that needed to happen, looking back, I’m glad it did,” Torkelson said in an interview last year. “I really persevered throughout that and built up those mental calluses, to where the next time I’m 0-for-20, I’m not going to freak out. I’m going to stick to my approach, trust myself and go back to my basics that I know work at the highest level.”

Torkelson’s athleticism at first base would help the Tigers assemble their best defensive infield, with Jonathan Schoop at second, Báez at shortstop, and Jeimer Candelario at third. While Greene’s long-term future could be in a corner-outfield spot, he’s shown this spring that he’s more than capable in center field; if he earns the spot there, he’s likely to be flanked by Akil Baddoo and Robbie Grossman.

Avila was the team’s assistant GM when another left-handed-hitting outfielder, Curtis Granderson, claimed the center field job in the spring of 2006. Granderson faced similar questions about his ability to manage Comerica Park’s expansive center field but started there on an everyday basis for four seasons and became an All-Star at the position. While Greene profiles differently than Granderson in some ways, his strong work ethic reminds Avila of what he observed in Granderson.

The Tigers will have plenty of depth at Toledo, even if Greene and Torkelson make the Tigers’ roster. Ryan Kreidler, a versatile infielder who posted an .804 OPS at Double-A and Triple-A last year, is expected to see time at second, short, and third in Toledo. Kody Clemens, Isaac Paredes, and Zack Short will rotate among multiple positions, as well.

The Tigers see left-hander Joey Wentz, 24, and right-handers Alex Faedo, 26, and Elvin Rodríguez, 23, as options to come up from the Minors and start games if needed during the regular season. Left-hander Tyler Alexander is expected to begin the season as the Tigers’ No. 5 starter, before transitioning into a long relief role once the newly signed Michael Pineda receives his work visa and is cleared to pitch.

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