Spencer Torkelson is a Detroit Tiger. That sentence was exciting enough when he was drafted, but now it’s real. The man called Tork is debuting for the Detroit Tigers on Opening Day. The future is here.
The last time there was this much excitement around a debut there was a trio of top prospects who got the call all at once. The next time will be when Riley Greene is healed and ready to go. For now, it’s the former first overall pick who did nothing but hit during Spring Training to earn his spot on the roster. Then again, hitting is what Torkelson has always done.
Under the new CBA teams are more incentivized to have their top prospects debut on Opening Day through draft pick compensation. In order for that extra to take effect for the Tigers, Torkelson will have to finish in the top three in the Rookie of the Year race. That would earn the Tigers a comp pick in the 2023 amateur draft. Competition is bound to be stiff with Royals’ shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and Mariners’ outfielder Julio Rodriguez leading the early favorites. It’s still not impossible that Riley Greene could get into that mix should he return on the shorter timetable for his injury and rage the rest of the season.
It’s been somewhat of a weird road for Torkelson thus far. He was the first overall pick in 2020, but announced as a third baseman on draft day. That means the final season of his college career at Arizona State was cut short due to COVID, and he didn’t get to play in his draft year like draft picks normally would because there was no minor league season. Then there was the odd decision to call him a third baseman, ostensibly to avoid a host of stories about taking a first baseman 1-1, which just isn’t done.
However, when he finally got back to work in the 2021 season, Torkelson shook off some early struggles and climbed from High-A to Triple-A with authority. Once he got going, he got going in a big way. He wound up hitting over .300 with 5 homeruns. in 31 games for West Michigan before receiving a promotion to join Greene in Erie. That’s when his power started to pick up. He wound up in Triple-A for the final 40 games of his season where he .238 with 11 homers. He continued to make adjustments at each level and wound up slashing .267/.383/.552 with 30 homers across the three levels.
And this spring he has proven he’s ready for his chance with the Tigers.
Torkelson is a hitter. That’s what got him drafted first overall and that’s what’s going to drive his career. He has plenty of raw power that will show itself in games, but what makes him so lethal is the presence of a legitimate hit tool. Most evaluators grade him 60 or higher for both, with the raw power graded as double plus in many quarters. It all starts with a clean operation. He possess a short, fast swing with a solid bat path geared to do damage. Every movement of it seems optimized to get as much out of it as possible. It’s quick, balanced, and he’s able to generate lift that helps his double plus raw power play in game. It’s poetry in motion.
A beautiful swing is one thing, and that kind of raw power doesn’t guarantee success at the plate. What continues to separate Torkelson is his hit tool, which starts with an exceptional eye for the strike zone and patience. He can work counts, draw walks, and punish mistakes. That is an important skill to have complimenting big power, otherwise that massive raw power just makes a player a batting practice spectacle. Torkelson can do it in games.
Strikeout numbers were a caveat to the overall success from his professional debut. He very well may strikeout at that rate throughout his career, which isn’t necessarily a detriment because of his ability to sustain a high OBP anyway. The other side of that coin is that it was his first taste of professional baseball and those numbers could go down. Though that shouldn’t be expected with his first go round against MLB arms.
Defensively he’s likely limited to first base long term. He isn’t a liability by any means, but he is an average defender there. He offers a little more range than the average first baseman, and a solid throwing arm, but still needs to improve his footwork around the bag and ability to pick balls out of the dirt. He was drafted as a third baseman and likely could play there in a pinch, but realistically his best shot at contributing defensively in any meaningful way is as a first baseman.
Short term I’d say it’s fair to expect him to hit .400 with 70+ homeruns as a rookie. Kidding.
Rookies are rookies, prospect growth isn’t linear, and sometimes good players don’t debut well. The Mariners’ Jared Kelenic was supposed to set the world on fire when he debuted last season, and he was underwhelming until some late season adjustments started to turn things around. On the other hand, Rays’ uber-prospect shortstop Wander Franco was amazing. Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, and Isaac Paredes can all be looked upon with varying levels of favor based on how their first chances went.
For Torkelson there is one player that comes to mind for me to look at, which is Andrew Vaughn from the White Sox. Vaughn was picked third overall in the 2019 draft as a first bsaeman. There are some similarities in that both were graded with plus or higher hit and power tools as prospects. Each played only briefly in the minor leagues before making an Opening Day roster. Vaughn was helped to that by the COVID cancelled season, playing in 2019 then debuting in the MLB in 2021. Vaughn collected 469 plate appearances and hit .235 with 15 homeruns with his play translating to 0.3 fWAR.
That’s not a prediction for Torkelson, but it’s also not an unrealistic outcome. Vaughn was used sparingly early on in the season, struggling to find consistent playing time. Torkelson is being handed a role. There’s a real chance that Torkelson gets off to a hot start and proves that he belongs, but he could struggle again. That’s baseball. The Tigers new first baseman has the type of approach that should lend itself to consistent solid production, with him developing into the superb power bat we’re all expecting over time. But there are guarantees.
Long term expectations are to hope that the Tigers have found an anchor in the middle of the lineup for years to come. He has that potential and ceiling to hit 40 home runs and still hit for average and high on-base percentage. With his skillset, if he cuts down on the strikeouts and finds more pitches to ambush as he learns the league, he has the offensive ceiling to be one of the better hitters in the game. That is highest possible outcome. Realistic outcomes depend on the evaluator, but some think he’s a perennial All-Star, others think maybe an occasional one. Either way, it’s realistic to expect that in the long term Spencer Torkelson will make an impact in the Detroit Tigers lineup. For now, we’re just thrilled he’s here and locked into the Opening Day roster.