Setbacks could be extra costly to Tigers' likely No. 1 pick Spencer Torkelson

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Undoubtedly, it was his final at-bat at Arizona State. It came in the eighth inning of a March 8 game against Fresno State, at Phoenix, which the Sun Devils were about to win, 8-3.

Spencer Torkelson had a nine-pitch at-bat that ended when Fresno State reliever Nik Cardinal, a right-hander, got a strikeout that was more like a trophy.

Spencer Torkelson

Cardinal can always say he struck out a man who next month is expected to be anointed as the 2020 big-league draft’s first overall player.

The Tigers are all but certain to take Torkelson, a 20-year-old first baseman and right-handed slugger who stands 6-foot-1, weighs 220, and whose bat is more like a dynamite stick.

He batted .340 for the Sun Devils before their season crash-landed against the COVID-19 pandemic. His OPS then was a staggering 1.378 thanks to a slugging percentage of .780 and an on-base average of .598, the latter a crazy number generated in large part due to the 31 times Torkelson walked in 17 games.

Since then, Torkelson has been coping. He has joined a world in dislocation. He has not played a competitive game in eight weeks. He is back home in Petaluma, Calif., at his parents’ residence, not sure when he might next have a competitive at-bat.

“I am working on my online courses,” Torkelson said last week via text message, “working out, staying in shape, and hitting at home in my batting cage.”

Torkelson has been advised – he doesn’t say by who – to refrain from further talk about his and ASU’s layoff and how a likely first-overall draft pick might be dealing with realities that are physical, psychological, and, yes, financial.

This year’s first-overall pick has a bonus slot of $8,415,300, which Major League Baseball expects teams to not exceed. That’s nice money, but it comes with a caveat delivered by the coronavirus.

Because of a 2020 season and its revenues potentially vanishing, Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office and the MLB Players Association have agreed to a deferred payment plan for this year’s draft picks.

The most that can be paid up-front to a 2020 drafted player is $500,000 – with the remaining balance due in two installments in July 2021 and July 2022. That means, in the event Torkelson is picked and signs with the Tigers, he’ll be waiting for nearly $8 million split into two paychecks over the next two years.

Spencer Torkelson: "I'm working out, staying in shape, and hitting at home in my batting cage.”

Manfred’s office has yet to finalize this year’s draft plans, but is expected to announce something firm this week. It is possible the draft will stick with its originally planned date, June 10.

The key question: How many rounds will be offered to 2020 teams? Manfred and the 30 big-league clubs have already conceded this year’s draft will be trimmed, perhaps radically, to as few as five rounds from the standard 40. There appears to be a growing consensus that the 2020 sweepstakes will last at least 10 rounds, which is the Tigers’ hope, since they pick at the top of each phase and when they have four of the first 73 picks (1, 38, 62, and 73).

There has been little chance the Tigers will opt for any player other than Torkelson when their first turn arrives, at whatever date Manfred chooses.

Torkelson’s talents for hitting a baseball, with a lovely short swing that can send a pitch 430 feet or more, has placed him in the Tigers’ eyes above another splendid swinger, Austin Martin of Vanderbilt.

Martin likely will hit for a higher average than Torkelson. But it’s doubtful in scouts’ view that he can ever match Torkelson’s power. Also, there is no fixed position for Martin, who was moved from third base to center field just as the 2020 season got rolling.

Torkelson plays first base. And that’s fine with Detroit’s talent evaluators. Although they agree he could play a corner outfield spot, or even work at third base, his grace and neat defense at first have the Tigers inclined to leave him there.

There is no indication the Tigers will consider a pitcher with their first-overall ticket, even if Texas A&M left-hander Asa Lacy had scouts from across baseball fantasizing about grabbing him – instantly.

Lacy is 6-4, 215, throws high-90s lightning, and has a breaking ball that makes him superior – for now – to Georgia right-hander Emerson Hancock.

But the Tigers have a crate full of starting pitching on their farm and lack way too many bats to make even a pitcher as hot as Lacy a serious option.

They had scouts following Torkelson in February and early March when he was getting nearly two walks a game, and not only because opposing pitchers were treating him as if he were another one-time ASU kingpin, Barry Bonds.

It’s also because Torkelson has a batting eye among his list of exceptional skills.

The Tigers understand this, of course. It’s all part of a detailed scouting report that area scouts and cross-checkers and the Tigers front office, beginning with general manager Al Avila, have together forged during the years since their staff first began tracking Torkelson.

Nothing they saw during the near-month they eyeballed him in ASU games ahead of the coronavirus shutdown dissuaded them. Nothing they saw from Martin, for as good of a hitter as he is destined to be in the big leagues, convinced them Martin will be the better bet when 2020’s first pick is proclaimed, by Manfred, whenever that date arrives.

Plan on an introductory press conference, at some point next month or as late as July, when Torkelson will be presented, perhaps by way of the trendy, pandemic-mandated medium known as Zoom.

When will he suit up? When will he take his first swings in a Tigers jersey?

That, for now, is the greater question. COVID-19 has ravaged a planet and has rocked, it seems, every haven a nation once believed was secure. Torkelson and the Tigers know too well that the losses include baseball’s stage.