Henning: Spencer Torkelson looks to be draft lock for Tigers, but 2nd round holds suspense
At about 7:11 p.m. next Wednesday, the Tigers will tell Commissioner Rob Manfred that they’re putting a heavy part of their baseball future in the hands, and bat, of Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson.
Stuff can happen inside of seven days. But the parties want each other and the money issues are close to being resolved, if not essentially locked up, with something approaching, or just north of, $8 million destined for Torkelson and his slot ceiling of $8.4 million. Scott Boras is Torkelson’s agent and the Tigers and Boras are old dance partners who have a relationship. There is little chance that this Detroit-Torkelson romance will cool ahead of Draft Night.
The Tigers see Torkelson as the franchise-caliber hitter and power bat they absolutely require. He is 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, swings a blur of a right-handed stick, and is a lineup imperative if their long rebuild is to be more than a pursuit and October playoffs again someday are part of life at Comerica Park.
Torkelson plays first base. And plays it well. Scouts and his coach, Tracy Smith, agree he could handle third base, second base, or the outfield — even center, where he has filled in for the Sun Devils. But the fact he plays with such grace at first is a big reason why the Tigers are, for now, planning to leave him be.
Torkelson is gifted, for sure. He could be a .300 hitter in the big leagues, with the kind of power that even Comerica Park can’t overly thwart. The ball whistles from his bat at scary speeds and heights.
This is part of a man’s innate, all-purpose athleticism that included years as a prep football running back at Petaluma, California. Of particular interest to Detroit, he was a splendid youth hockey center, a team-leading scorer. Don’t be surprised if at some point after he has signed with the Tigers he’ll be asked to toss on a pair of skates, grab a stick, and unveil talents that could have made him a serious amateur star.
Torkelson is a huge NHL fan, a San Jose Sharks devotee who if things evolve as planned, will probably become a blood-brother to his Red Wings cohorts down the street at Little Caesars Arena.
So, this courtship, now in its early days of ardor, has a chance of turning torrid in the years ahead.
What happens next is as key for the Tigers as snatching Torkelson and his skills.
Torkelson, and then ...
The Tigers have six picks, overall, in a five-round draft shortened by (gulp) 35 rounds due to coronavirus. Some timing, this event, for a reconstructing baseball team. But as the Tigers would concede, there are matters of life and income that by comparison make baseball’s draft look like a card game.
The show begins Wednesday and, like the NFL Draft, focuses on only the first round during Night One. A day later, at 5 p.m., the 30 big-league teams will take their stabs at rounds 2-5, including compensation wild cards. This is where the Tigers get an extra pick, at 63 overall, thanks to their Competitive Balance status, which is a kind of St. Vincent de Paul stop for baseball’s needier teams (somber place in the standings, market limitations, etc.).
It’s that 38th pick that carries more suspense than does their first-overall turn, which is known.
The Tigers need help pretty much everywhere except with starting pitching, although they won’t pass on an unexpected treasure if it surfaces at 38.
Their deepest need is a shortstop. Consider the last time the Tigers drafted and developed a shortstop. Danny Worth is about as good as it gets since the days of Travis Fryman. Yes, they had a nice one in one Eugenio Suarez, a Latin prospect signed as a teen. But in a moment of low illumination they decided Suarez, rather than a prospect pitcher named Kevin Ziomek, would be the dowry paid for one season of the immortal Alfredo Simon.
(Don’t be surprised if that page of Tigers history has been excised, via single-blade razor, and offered in a blazing fire to the baseball gods as an act of front-office penitence).
So, it’s shortstop the Tigers will most want to fill with one of their own brood. The problem: Most of the very best ones will of course be gone by then: Nick Loftin, probably Ed Howard, and maybe prep hotshot Carson Tucker. They aren’t likely to survive 37 preceding turns.
That could leave the Tigers weighing college steeds Alika Williams, Jordan Westburg, Casey Martin, and — most intriguingly, University of Miami star Freddy Zamora. Zamora is healing from knee surgery that knocked him from the Hurricanes’ 2020 season a few weeks before COVID-19 ended matters altogether. But his defense and bat might make him an irresistible pick there.
If the shortstops don’t appeal, the Tigers can take a shot at college outfielders Daniel Cabrera or Zach DeLoach, or, should he drop from the first round, Austin Wells, from the University of Arizona, who is a catcher but who probably will be moving to the outfield.
Or, of course, there could be that old Tigers standby — pitching — that becomes too seductive to ignore. Tanner Burns from Auburn likely will have been selected up by then, but he’s an example of what the Tigers might see as a jewel too precious to pass on.
One factor to consider a week from Draft Night: How many of the Top 100 prospects will head for school and wait for better global health and brighter draft fortunes in the years ahead?
With only five rounds, and only $100,000 that can be paid up front to early picks — with the rest of the money deferred over 2021 and 2122 — this is not an alluring draft, financially.
Better days in 2021?
Next year, of course, it figures to be loaded. All those college juniors who opt for a senior year at their alma maters will be wedged into the 2021 sweepstakes, as will talents who decide to try junior college for a year and thus can become draft-legal a year from now.
The Tigers could benefit nicely in 2021 — if they hold their 2020 draft position, or something very close to it. But you never know. If the 2020 season is salvaged, and with all kinds of craziness possible, the Tigers could always outkick their coverage and find themselves with a better record than they might actually deserve. And a less lofty place in next year’s presumed bumper draft.
Some luck that would be.
They’re already paying a probable, and perhaps incalculable, price for losing the first half of 2020. By this time, a handsome talent such as Matthew Boyd was supposed to have been confirming his All-Star stripes and setting himself up for a trade the Tigers acutely need to make for a prospect position star.
But that’s not happening. A key year of service time that would have been part of Boyd’s trade glamour is being lost to a pandemic. On a list of Tigers-centric casualties, this perhaps was a biggie.
It’s all part of the Tigers’ sorrowful mysteries from 2020. And yet one mystery pretty much no longer is in question.
Torkelson, for now, is part of Detroit’s and the Tigers’ future. That news bulletin, carrying with it all the drama and better times a man of his talent portends, figures to be made firm and final next Wednesday night.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.