DETROIT — Opening Day, the Michigan holiday that is the return of Tigers baseball, takes on added meaning this year. The unofficial end of Michigan’s winter is also the official start of the Spencer Torkelson era when the Tigers host the White Sox on Friday.
By cracking the Tigers’ Opening Day roster, Torkelson also will become the first Tigers position player to make his Major League debut in the Opening Day lineup since Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore did it in 2010. He’ll also fulfill a dream not only he and his family had since he was a kid, but a dream Tigers fans have shared — not only since Detroit drafted him first overall in 2020, but since Tigers fans saw highlights of his tape-measure home runs at Arizona State.
For a Detroit fan base that has seen five consecutive losing seasons since the team began its rebuild in the summer of 2017, Torkelson is a symbol of hope that the Tigers can mash again like they did when Miguel Cabrera was a Triple Crown winner, Prince Fielder was a two-time Home Run Derby champion and J.D. Martinez was a surprise sensation.
Ahead of the big day, here’s what to know:
How can I watch the game?
If you bought a ticket to the home opener in anticipation of Torkelson’s debut, you’re in luck. If you waited for Torkelson to officially make the team first, sorry, but the game is sold out. First pitch is at 1:10 p.m. ET.
The game will be televised in Michigan and Northwest Ohio on Bally Sports Detroit, and will air online on MLB.TV outside of the Detroit market. The radio broadcast will be on 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit, the flagship station for the Tigers Radio Network, as well as MLB Gameday Audio.
Why is Torkelson such a big deal?
We can go over his status as the Tigers’ top prospect since Casey Mize graduated last year, or the No. 4 prospect on MLB Pipeline’s latest prospect rankings throughout baseball, or the rare 70-grade power on the 20-to-80 scale on his scouting report. Or we can sum it up simply: The dude mashes.
Torkelson broke Barry Bonds’ record for home runs as a freshman at Arizona State with 25 in 2018. He led the Pac-12 in homers in both full college seasons he played, and posted a .729 slugging percentage for his career as a Sun Devil. He then hit 30 homers in his first pro season, spread across three Minor League levels, including 11 homers over 40 games at Triple-A Toledo late in the year. He posted a two-homer game with the Mud Hens, another with Double-A Erie and another with High-A West Michigan.
What is this Tork Bomb that everybody talks about?
That’s the nickname Torkelson picked up for his home runs — especially his tape-measure drives — while at Arizona State, where he became a must-see player.
What can we expect from him at the plate?
Do you want a comprehensive, detailed scouting report? Or do you want to watch him sock a few dingers?
OK, there’s actually more to Torkelson’s offensive game than his all-fields power. He actually is a patient hitter with a keen awareness of his strike zone, willing and able to take walks but also capable of fouling off pitches to extend at-bats until he recognizes a mistake. He obviously can crush fastballs, but his pitch recognition is advanced. Combine that with his raw power, and he can hit breaking balls and off-speed out of the park just as easily as velocity. He also is willing to do situational hitting, having produced 11 sacrifice flies last year.
At each level, Torkelson took time to adjust. He went 9-for-50 with 14 walks and 18 strikeouts over his first 14 games at High-A West Michigan to open last season before hitting his first pro home run. He went 4-for-28 over his first seven Triple-A games before his first Mud Hens homer. So patience is a virtue.
What can we expect from him on defense?
The Tigers announced Torkelson as a third baseman when they drafted him, even though he played first base for his entire career at Arizona State. His time at the third, thankfully, is over. While he’s capable of playing a spell over there, the positional flexibility overshadowed how good of a first baseman he can be. He worked regularly on ground balls last year with Hall of Famer Alan Trammell, and his quick reactions nullify any question on range. His glovework at the bag is good, digging out throws in the dirt or stretching at the right angle to get an out.
What number will he wear?
Though Torkelson wore a range of numbers on his way up the farm system, the Tigers in Spring Training gave him No. 20, his number from college. He’ll be the first Tigers player to wear the number since speedy outfielder Rajai Davis in 2014 and ’15.
Mark Fidrych is the most famous Tiger to wear No. 20, and won Rookie of the Year wearing it in 1976. But a few sluggers have worn it over the years, including Mickey Tettleton (1991-94), Howard Johnson (1983-84) and Rudy York in his breakout season of 1937.
How will the Tigers use him?
Though manager A.J. Hinch likes positional versatility almost as much as he likes infield shifts, he isn’t going to mess with Torkelson, who should be in the lineup at first base on a nearly every-game basis. The stability should help Torkelson ride the ups and downs of his rookie season and tune out slumps to focus on defense.
Where will he hit in the lineup?
One great thing about Torkelson joining the Tigers now instead of last season is that Detroit’s lineup has more depth. With Javier Báez signed, Akil Baddoo more established and Jeimer Candelario entering his prime years, the Tigers don’t need Torkelson in the middle of the order. It would be a shock to see him bat higher than sixth, but his power probably shouldn’t leave him lower than seventh.
Are there any player comps for Torkelson?
Mets slugger Pete Alonso and Padres power hitter Luke Voit have been popular comparisons to Torkelson because of the power and build, though Torkelson is a couple inches shorter and at least 25 pounds lighter at this point. One Major League evaluator used Paul Goldschmidt as a comparison.
Torkelson was born Aug. 26, 1999 in Petaluma, Calif., north of San Francisco. He was a four-year starter at Casa Grande High School, which also produced former Major League slugger Jonny Gomes and Marlins pitcher Anthony Bender.
Torkelson played college baseball at Arizona State University. According to ASU’s media guide, the Sun Devils have produced 112 Major Leaguers, second only to USC (118) among NCAA programs. Twelve percent of all Sun Devil letterwinners have played in the Majors, including noted sluggers Barry Bonds and Reggie Jackson.
How did the Tigers acquire him?
Detroit selected Torkelson with the top overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, the Tigers’ second No. 1 overall pick in three years. The other, right-hander Mize, is the expected starting pitcher for the Tigers’ second game of the season on April 9.
Tigers general manager Al Avila said at the start of Spring Training that service time would not be a consideration in deciding whether Torkelson or any prospect makes the Opening Day roster. The Tigers, coming off five consecutive losing seasons, are trying to take the next step into contention and compete for a playoff spot. Torkelson showed he’s their best option at first base, offensively and defensively.
“I’m not arrogant enough to think that I can hold a guy back and we’re going to get by and we’re going to make the playoffs anyway,” Avila said last month. “You’ve got to go full bore from Day 1, because those few games at the beginning can mean everything at the end.”