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Tigers considering 'different scenarios,' but Spencer Torkelson appears to lead pack for No. 1 pick

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

For months, the Tigers have been focused on a hitter even the pandemic of 2020 could not thwart — Spencer Torkelson, a pristine first baseman from Arizona State.

Unless something bizarre from an already crazy 2020 occurs, the Tigers at 7:11 p.m. Wednesday (MLB Network, ESPN) will make Torkelson the first overall pick in the 2020 Major League Baseball Draft.

Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson figures to be the Tigers' selection at No. 1 overall.

“We’re not ready to disclose, we’re still talking a lot of different scenarios,” Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, said Tuesday. “It’s no different from any other year. You know the possibilities — you know who you like. Who’s on the board.”

At that first slot on the Tigers’ draft wish list is Torkelson. Avila’s front office has done nothing during these pre-draft months to dissuade those who have believed Torkelson rests just ahead of two other franchise-level talents: Austin Martin, a sublime hitter from Vanderbilt, as well as Texas A&M power left-hander Asa Lacy.

Torkelson does not turn 21 until Aug. 26, but his mosaic of batting skills, as well as his overall deftness, are all but assured to make him Wednesday night’s opening pick in a pandemic-shortened, five-round draft that extends through Thursday.

He is a 6-foot-1, 220-pound, right-handed masher who hit 25 home runs as a freshman at ASU, followed with 23 as a sophomore, and until COVID-19 ended college baseball’s schedule, added another six homers in 17 games in 2020. In those 17 games for the Sun Devils, Torkelson spent almost as much time at first base after batting as he did on defense, given the walks he was handed by pitchers who feared what he would do with a pitch in the strike zone.

Torkelson’s three-year ASU batting story: .337 average, .463 on-base percentage, .729 slugging, good for a staggering 1.192 OPS. This season, he walked 31 times in 17 games and struck out 15 times. His OPS in 2019 was 1.153, and 1.378 before 2020 was canceled.

The Tigers and Torkelson’s agent, Scott Boras, have done heavy, franchise-altering business before — Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers, Prince Fielder, etc. were all Boras clients — and are expected to merge again on a deal somewhere in the vicinity of the $8.4 million that MLB has allotted as a ceiling for the first overall pick.

While he plays first base, a position that does not carry the cachet of other positions, the Tigers have, like all big-league teams, taken notes on Torkelson’s overall bag of skills, and his deft ways at first.

ASU coach Tracy Smith has used Torkelson at a variety of positions, including center field, and believes his fluid ways could make him a fit at third base, second base, or the outfield, should the Tigers decide to shift him from first base.

But there has been no hint from the Tigers that they view him as anything but a plus at first, somewhat in the vein of former big-league star Mark Teixeira, who was a two-way asset during his days with the Yankees and Rangers.

Martin, the Vanderbilt junior, is perhaps even a better hitter than Torkelson. But his power does not match Torkelson’s, nor is there any certainty among scouts on where his ultimate big-league position rests.

Martin was expected to be picked second overall by the Orioles. But there were reports Wednesday that the Orioles were readying a surprise: a less-gaudy player who could be signed well beneath the allowance limit, which would ostensibly allow Baltimore to throw big bucks later in the draft at a player who might otherwise be off to college.

Lacy compares in remarkable ways to Detroit native and ex-Tigers dazzler Frank Tanana when Tanana was signed by the California Angels out of Detroit Catholic Central High. Tanana was a fireballer before hurting his arm and led the American League in strikeouts in 1975. Lacy is another franchise-grade hurler of heat and vicious sliders who could go third to the Marlins — depending upon what the Orioles do.

Zac Veen, a tremendous prep and left-handed hitter from Port Orange, Florida, figures to go no later than fourth to the Royals. Nick Gonzales, a left-side infielder from New Mexico State, could also go in the top five, as could University of Minnesota right-hander Max Meyer.

The draft extends Wednesday only through the first round and seven compensation picks. The Tigers will have the first overall pick Thursday (5 p.m.) when they open the second round with the 38th overall selection. They have four more picks in the final four rounds, one of which is a compensation bonus tied to the Tigers’ sad record in 2019 and Detroit’s market size.

Avila wasn’t offering hints at what the Tigers might do with Thursday’s first pick. And that, in large part, was due to the fluid ways in which the first round might evolve.

“We’ve been going over that today quite a bit,” Avila said, speaking of his scouting team, headed by Scott Pleis. “There are a lot of names floating around on our board.

“Even though we know who we like, there could be one, two, three guys we thought there was no chance. Once the first night is over, we can sit on it all night and next day, and figure out what’s next.

“Obviously, there’ll be a good player there, and we’ll get the best guy.”

Major League Baseball draft

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday (first round); 5 p.m. Thursday (Rounds 2-5)

TV: Wednesday — MLB Network, ESPN; Thursday — MLB Network, ESPN2

Notable: The Tigers own the No. 1 overall pick for the second time in three years. 

Lynn is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.