It feels like a make-or-break season.
When spring training begins Feb. 13, Torkelson — four months removed from the end of a miserable rookie campaign — will control a spot on the Opening Day roster as the everyday first baseman. The 23-year-old could play his way off the team due to poor performance, but for now, the Tigers will take their chances.
“The vote of confidence came in September when we brought him up and played him every day,” manager A.J. Hinch said Thursday, “and he earned that by getting the ball to the pull side in the air and having more competitive at-bats in the strike zone. His overall confidence grew, and that led us to having a ton of confidence in where he was leaving last season into a busy offseason for him.”
In 2022, Torkelson posted a .203 batting average with eight home runs, 37 walks (9.2% walk rate) and 99 strikeouts (24.5% strikeout rate) in 110 games. The Tigers sent him to Triple-A Toledo, where he spent 35 games, at the All-Star break.
“We just wanted him to decompress and get away from the season,” Hinch said. “We liked how he left with his demeanor, his body language, his production inside the strike zone, his power, and then there’s little, subtle tweaks that we’re going to always try to build on.”
Hinch said Torkelson impressed the Tigers upon his return to the big leagues at the beginning of September.
In his final 27 games, Torkelson hit .219 with three home runs, eight walks and 23 strikeouts. (He hit .197 with five homers, 29 walks and 76 strikeouts in 83 games before his demotion.)
Simply put, he never looked comfortable.
“We have other options if we need to, but clearly, our best team has Spencer Torkelson as a major contributor,” Hinch said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what adjustments we’ve been able to tweak a little bit and the relationship with the hitting department. … We want him to be a big contributor. He’s a really good player.”
On the free-agent market, Wil Myers and Trey Mancini appeared to be potential fits, but the Tigers never made offers to those players. Myers, who plays first base and corner outfield, signed a one-year, $7.5 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Mancini, who also plays first base and corner outfield, inked a two-year, $14 million contract with the Chicago Cubs.
A handful of lower-tier first-base options remain available via free agency: Luke Voit, Yuli Gurriel, Jesús Aguilar, Edwin Ríos, Mike Moustakas and Miguel Sanó. If the Tigers were to acquire a first baseman as insurance for Torkelson, they would likely sign a player to a minor-league contract.
But the Tigers want Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick, to emerge as a franchise-altering threat in the everyday lineup. If he struggles, second baseman Jonathan Schoop would be the natural internal candidate to take his position.
This offseason, Torkelson hasn’t changed his swing.
His swing path, among other mechanical concerns, seemed to plague him last season, as he hit .224 against fastballs, .216 against middle-middle fastballs and .212 against all middle-middle pitches. Two members of the new hitting department — Michael Brdar and Keith Beauregard — met with Torkelson on Thursday in Phoenix, where the former top prospect has been training.
“This isn’t a remake or rebuild of a swing,” Hinch said. “It’s a young player who came up to the big leagues and got his eyes opened to the competition level up here and some of the difficulties with your swing if you don’t make adjustments or don’t feel completely comfortable with your stance, with your weight distribution, your swing path.”
For better or for worse, the Tigers are rolling with Torkelson as the primary first baseman on the 40-man roster entering spring training.
The spotlight will be on him once again.
“My expectations are for him to be himself and to bring his best self every day,” Hinch said. “The numbers will speak for themselves. … To me, solidifying his process is going to set up the results to be what they are.”
The Tigers lost their closer earlier this month when they traded left-hander Gregory Soto to the Philadelphia Phillies for Matt Vierling, Nick Maton and Donny Sands. Remember, Hinch didn’t officially label Soto as the closer until after the 2021 season.
For the 2023 season, the third-year manager is taking another wait-and-see approach.
“We’ll have somebody close the game, I promise,” Hinch said. “That’s my standard answer. Our bullpen was a source of strength, and we’ve certainly cut into that a little bit with the trades. We gained a ton. But I think those roles are going to have to sort themselves out.”
Over the past two seasons, Soto posted a 3.34 ERA with 74 walks (13.7% walk rate), 136 strikeouts (25.2% strikeout rate) and 48 saves in 52 opportunities. He pitched more than 60 innings in both campaigns.
Looking ahead, the Tigers have a few established high-leverage relievers on their roster: right-handers Alex Lange, José Cisnero and Jason Foley. Younger pitchers like Joey Wentz, Beau Brieske, Garrett Hill, Mason Englert and Alex Faedo could be built up as starters in spring training before transitioning to the bullpen.
The Tigers also recently signed left-hander Chasen Shreve and right-hander Trey Wingenter to minor-league contracts with invitations to MLB spring training. Wingenter’s fastball can reach 98 mph, but he is coming back from several injuries.
“We’ve got any number of names that we can use,” Hinch said. “We’re probably going to get to the finish line a couple different ways this year until something evolves better. It took me a couple of years to name Soto, so I consider this the first week of that question, but I can assure you we will feel good about the last three outs once we get the lead.”
When spring training games begin, MLB will enforce three new rules to the game in hopes of improving the pace of play and offensive numbers: a pitch timer, limits on defensive shifts and bigger bases.
At MLB’s winter meetings in December, the league held a presentation for managers about the upcoming pitch clock. There will be a 30-second timer between batters, and between pitches, there will be a 15-second timer with the bases empty and a 20-second timer with runners on base.
If a pitcher violates the rules, the pitcher is charged with an automatic ball. If a batter violates the rules, the batter is charged with an automatic strike. (Pitchers, by the way, are limited to two disengagements — pickoff attempts or step-offs — during each plate appearance.)
“The pitch clock, we’ve got to attack from Day 1,” Hinch said. “We’re going to start with an explanation and will have some presentations. We’re going to practice with the clock. We’re going to throw our bullpens with the clock. Our live BPs are going to be with the clock, more so to get them used to reality, and for the hitters, too.
“When we talk about live BPs, those are usually casual environments over the last 100 years in baseball, and now they’re going to be timed. It’s for both parties, the pitchers and the hitters. We’ll make sure that we dive pretty deep into that.”
The limit on defensive shifts shouldn’t be a difficult adjustment.
Infielders must be on each side of second base, and all four infielders must keep their feet on the infield dirt. Four-outfielder alignments are prohibited, too, but teams can position an outfielder in the infield to create a five-player infield and two-player outfield. If the infielders break the rules, the offense can choose between an automatic ball or the result of the play.
“The shift will be really easy because we’ll just leave guys on one side or the other, wherever they play,” Hinch said. “We’re not just going to go back to where you would naturally draw up the positions. We’ll shade if we need. … We’ll get frustrated when balls roll through the infield because we should have an extra guy there, but not under these rules.”
What they said
For the 2023 season, the Tigers will move in the center-field fence 10 feet, from 422 feet to 412 feet, and drop the height of that wall from 8½ feet to 7 feet. The wall in right-center field will lower from 13 feet to 7 feet, and the wall in right field will lower from 8½ feet to 7 feet.
MORE ON COMERICA PARK: New dimensions should boost Tigers’ psyches: ‘You just want to be rewarded’
Hinch: “We want the players to be in a fair ballpark, and fair doesn’t really mean slanted towards one or the other. It’s going to be a big ballpark. I think the lower fence is a more exciting portion of it than caring what the dimensions are. When we walk into a ballpark around the league, we never talk about dimensions. We always talk about nuances, whether it’s an angled wall, a ball that can get stuck underneath the padding, an area of the ballpark where you can exploit first (base) to third or home (plate) to third. … The goal is to make it a fair environment, both psychologically and physically, and I think the studies that have gone in, the people that have contributed to it, have done a lot of work. We’ll see where it takes us.”
LHP Matthew Boyd: “If a guy hits a ball 415 feet, it probably should be a home run. I probably didn’t do something right on that pitch, and my job is to miss barrels. I think it’s going to be better for our hitters. There’s something ominous about looking out there and seeing that big sign for everybody. Our guys that get to play here 81 games a year, I would rather have that benefit for them than and extra 10 feet for me. Any ball that’s hit that far should probably get rewarded for the hitter anyway.”
RHP Matt Manning: “We went from having the deepest ballpark to probably still the deepest ballpark in center field. It’s still deep out there. If you’re going to get one, it’s going to go (for a home run). I’ve taken it into the context that it plays more fair to all 30 ballparks. When it’s 2-0, I can’t just grip a heater and you’re not going to get it out of Comerica Park. It’s going to play more fair to all the ballparks, so we can go into every stadium with the same mindset.”
C Eric Haase: “I think it’s more mental. I think it’s more of the psyche that you bring into the box with you when you’re walking up there for your second at-bat, and your first at-bat you flew out at 430 feet, and you’re looking up there at a 0-0 ballgame. It’s really hard grabbing your bat and going back up there not trying to do a little bit more. … It’s more frustrating from that aspect. I don’t think it’s going to have much of an impact as far as the way we prepare or anything. … I don’t think there’s going to be a lot more homers hit. I don’t necessarily know how many more homers we’re going to be able to rob. But I think it makes it a little bit more of a fair game.”
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