7 things to watch at Detroit Tigers’ spring training: Who’s on 1st? (Spencer Torkelson!)

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — The first wave of pitchers and catchers have reported to the Detroit Tigers‘ spring training facility.

Finally, baseball is back.

Pitchers and catchers participating in the World Baseball Classic, which begins March 8, officially reported Monday. Non-WBC pitchers and catchers must report Wednesday, followed by WBC position players Thursday and non-WBC position players next Monday for the first full-squad workout. It’s the first spring training under president of baseball operations Scott Harris.

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Entering camp, the biggest questions revolve around the position players. A couple of bullpen jobs appear to be up for grabs, but the starting rotation seems set unless the Tigers opt for a six-man rotation. The team does not have an everyday third baseman.

The first spring training game is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. Feb. 25 against the Philadelphia Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland. Opening Day is slated for 3:10 p.m. March 30 against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Here are seven storylines to follow as the Tigers begin camp in Lakeland:

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1. Spencer Torkelson’s swing

Is there anyone more important to the 2023 Tigers than first baseman Spencer Torkelson? Probably not. And is there anything more than important than his swing? Probably not. For the Tigers to win in the near future, they need the 2020 No. 1 overall pick to produce like an elite player.

He didn’t do that as a rookie last season.

In 2022, Torkelson hit .203 with eight home runs across 110 games. He particularly struggled against four-seam fastballs (.175 batting average) and middle-middle pitches (.212). As his failures mounted, he lost his feel for the strike zone and chased down-and-away breaking balls. He recorded 20 of his 37 walks in his first 44 games, then 17 walks in his final 66.

His swing mechanics looked robotic, and his lower-half mechanics caused him to lack athleticism at the plate, but he didn’t overhaul his swing this offseason. Rather, Torkelson essentially plans to use the same swing in 2023.

Here’s what Torkelson said about his swing Jan. 30 on MLB Network Radio: “I lost my swing a little bit because I felt like I was sped up and wasn’t myself. It was really getting back to myself in the batter’s box and trusting that if I get back to my swing junior year of college (and) my 2021 minor-league campaign, if I get more consistency with that swing, everything is going to take care of itself.”

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2. Who’s on third?

The Tigers have three infield spots set in stone: Torkelson at first base, Jonathan Schoop at second base and Javier Báez at shortstop. There are at least seven other players competing for playing time in the infield, specifically at third base: César Hernández, Andy Ibáñez, Ryan Kreidler, Andre Lipcius, Nick Maton, Tyler Nevin and Jermaine Palacios.

Two of those players could platoon at third, with another serving as a utility player on the bench. Maton, acquired from the Phillies in the Gregory Soto trade, is expected to make the Opening Day roster. He bats left-handed and crushes righties, so the Tigers would benefit from having a right-handed hitter to pair with him.

Nevin, Ibáñez and Palacios — all right-handed hitters with past success against lefties — fit the bill and should compete for one of the final roster spots. Kreidler hit .213 in 56 games for Triple-A Toledo last season, then .178 in 26 games for the Tigers. Everyday at-bats in Toledo, rather than a bench role in the big leagues, might be better for his development.

Hernández, a 10-year MLB veteran, is the most likely player on a minor-league contract to break camp with the Tigers. He will push Schoop for playing time at second base while serving in a utility role if he maintains his plate discipline and recaptures some of his power.

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3. Returning from injuries

Let’s start with catcher Jake Rogers.

The 27-year-old, who turns 28 in April, will have every opportunity in spring training to win the backup job — behind starter Eric Haase — after missing the entire 2022 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Before the injury, he hit .239 with six home runs across 38 games in the 2021 season. It seems like Rogers’ spot to lose in competition with Donny Sands (who struggles against high-velocity fastballs) and Andrew Knapp (a switch-hitter and longtime MLB backup).

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Next is right-hander Spencer Turnbull.

The 30-year-old is coming back from Tommy John surgery, too, and hopes to reestablish himself as a frontline starter. Like Rogers, Turnbull missed the entire 2022 season while rehabbing. Before the injury, he threw a no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners in May 2021 and logged a 2.88 ERA with 12 walks and 44 strikeouts over 50 innings in nine starts that season. There’s a chance Turnbull returns to form and provides a massive boost to the pitching staff. Soon, the Tigers will know more about his status.

4. Building a bullpen

There’s an argument for José Cisnero as the closer.

This idea has made sense ever since the Tigers traded Soto to the Phillies and Joe Jiménez to the Atlanta Braves. Cisnero, a 33-year-old right-hander, becomes a free agent after this season, meaning the Tigers would prefer to move him at the trade deadline if they aren’t contending. But Cisnero suffered a shoulder injury last season and pitched 25 innings. So, what’s the best way for a reliever to increase his value? Saves.

From 2020-22, Cisnero posted 2.94 ERA with a 12.2% walk rate and 24.1% strikeout rate in 116⅓ innings. He recorded all four career saves in 2021. That year, his fastball averaged 96.7 mph with a 29.6% swing-and-miss rate, and his slider generated a 24.8% swing-and-miss rate. If the Tigers want to maximize the potential return for Cisnero at the trade deadline, they should make him the closer.

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Right-hander Alex Lange, under team control through the 2027 season, is another option. Remember Soto’s abysmal 12.9% walk rate? Lange had an 11.4% walk rate and needs to prove he can consistently throw strikes to get ahead in counts. The same is true for Cisnero.

5. New hitting department

Back in January, two members of the Tigers’ hitting department visited Torkelson in Arizona. Any hitter, of course, needs to buy into suggested adjustments from the organization, but manager A.J. Hinch believes the combination of his three-man crew can help every position player in the clubhouse.

Hinch hired three hitting coaches this offseason: 28-year-old Michael Brdar, 39-year-old Keith Beauregard and 46-year-old James Rowson. In 2022, Brdar served as the San Diego Padres’ hitting coach and was the second-youngest hitting coach in the big leagues. He played for Michigan and is considered an expert in analytics and biomechanics.

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Last season, the Tigers ranked 25th in batting average (.231), 29th in OBP (.286), 30th in slugging (.346), 30th in isolated power (.115), 29th in OPS (.632), 29th in walk rate (6.5%), 27th in strikeout rate (24.1%), 30th in chase rate (36.7%) and 30th in wRC+ (81).

The roster looks different this year, but improving the offense starts with each position player implementing optimal swing mechanics and approaches individualized to their strengths and weaknesses. The Tigers’ offense can’t get much worse, but how much better it gets depends on the new hitting coaches.

6. World Baseball Classic

Eight players from the Tigers’ organization will play in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, which begins March 8 and ends March 21. Five of those eight players are in big-league spring training: Báez (Puerto Rico), Schoop (Netherlands), Ibáñez (Cuba), designated hitter Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela) and left-handed starter Eduardo Rodriguez (Venezuela).

The absences of Báez and Schoop will allow the Tigers to take longer looks at less-experienced infielders competing for roster spots. As for the event, it will be important to watch Báez’s performance on the biggest stage. The assumption from people close to the situation is that the WBC should spark a better version of Báez in 2023. Last season, he hit .238 with 17 home runs in 144 games.

Another thing to keep in mind: Báez, who turned 30 in December, can opt out of his contract after the 2023 season.

7. Prospects to watch

Left-hander Joey Wentz could pitch his way into the Opening Day starting rotation. Four starters are confirmed: Rodriguez, Matt Manning, Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen. Turnbull is expected to join them, but if he suffers a setback, or if he isn’t back to form, Wentz would be the most deserving pitcher to take his place in the rotation.

In 2022, Wentz registered a 3.03 ERA with 13 walks and 27 strikeouts across 33⅔ innings in seven starts for the Tigers. He had an impressive 1.73 ERA in five starts in September, then fired 12 scoreless innings in three starts in the Arizona Fall League.

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Soon-to-be 23-year-old Justyn-Henry Malloy — an outfielder and third baseman acquired in the Jiménez trade — is another prospect to keep tabs on. He projects as a corner outfielder, but the Tigers will give him an opportunity to play his natural position at third base while possibly adding first base to his résumé. Malloy has elite plate discipline and posted a .408 on-base percentage across 133 games in the minor leagues last season. If all goes as planned, he will play in the big leagues this season.

Don’t forget about Elvis Alvarado, either. The right-handed reliever, who turns 24 later this month, logged a 2.72 ERA last season and rocketed from Low-A Lakeland (six games) to High-A West Michigan (23 games) to Double-A Erie (20 games). Luckily for the Tigers, he wasn’t selected in December’s Rule 5 draft. His fastball reaches 100 mph, complementing his slider and changeup.

The Tigers added five prospects to the 40-man roster this offseason: Lipcius, outfielder Parker Meadows, second baseman Wenceel Perez, right-handed starter Reese Olson and right-handed reliever Brendan White. All five of those players are on track to make their MLB debuts in 2023.

This is an important spring for catcher Dillon Dingler. The 24-year-old, a second-round pick in 2020, struck out 143 times in 107 games for Double-A Erie last season. He showed power with 14 home runs but needs to make more contact and cut down on chasing pitches outside of the strike zone. Two positives: Catchers typically take time to develop, and Dingler is a fantastic athlete.

Finally, it’ll be interesting to see how third baseman Colt Keith — arguably the Tigers’ best prospect and definitely their best all-around hitting prospect — handles his first MLB spring training.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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