Home run pick: Tigers take powerful Spencer Torkelson No. 1 in MLB Draft

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — No snags, no 11th-hour snafus, no real surprises.

With the first pick in the 2020 Major League Baseball amateur draft, the Detroit Tigers did indeed select Spencer Torkelson, a right-handed power hitter from Arizona State.

“To hear the commissioner say my name is a moment I will never forget,” Torkelson said in an interview with ESPN. “And to celebrate with my family and friends and former teammates is so amazing.”

Torkelson was projected to be the first overall pick by just about every industry mock draft, a perfect combination of being the best available talent and filling the club’s biggest need — impact hitter.

Spencer Torkelson

“Spencer is exactly the type of player we hoped would be there for us with the top pick in this year’s draft,” said Scott Pleis, Tigers director of amateur scouting. “He’s one of the most polished hitters we’ve seen in the draft for quite some time, showing plus-plus power and excellent plate discipline.”

There was one little wrinkle in the pick, though. The Tigers selected Torkelson as a third baseman, though he mostly played first base at Arizona State.

“We know he can play first but our scouts feel that he can play third base," Tigers general manager Al Avila told ESPN. “And that's our intent at this point. ... We feel he's more than capable of handling that."

Torkelson, who is the fifth third baseman ever taken with the first overall pick and first since Pat Burrell in 1998, was not that surprised by the position change.

“It wasn’t a shock to me,” he said. “I pride myself as a baseball player and a baseball player isn’t stuck at one position. When you are playing in the backyard as a 5-year-old, you’re not locking down first base. You are playing all over the place.

“That’s what I pride myself on. I pride myself on winning and getting the job done. If that’s at third base, then that’s what it is. I will do my best over there and make it happen.”

The Tigers, though, with Miguel Cabrera relegated to a primary designated hitter role by chronic knee pain, don’t have a true first base prospect in the system. It was thought that Torkelson checked that box, as well, and he could still end up there.

“(Torkelson) is athletic enough to give third base a shot,” said MLB Network analyst Jim Callis. “Third base is a position you can work at, a position you can get better at. Wade Boggs did. Robin Ventura did. And I also think it doesn’t matter a ton if he goes back to first base.

“I had a longtime scout tell me he is the best offensive prospect he’s ever scouted.”

With the Tigers heavy in elite pitching prospects, they made no secret of their desire to add an impact, middle-of-the-order bat, and with Torkelson, they got what draft experts believe is the best of the bunch.

“This is a guy, his bat is somewhere between Kris Bryant and Pete Alonso,” said former Cincinnati Reds GM and CBS sports analyst Jim Bowden. “He’s going to hit. He’s going to hit for power. He’s got foul pole-to-foul pole power. Although he prefers to pull the ball when it’s pitched right down the middle.

“But he’s got a short swing and no stride whatsoever. He’s got a two-hand finish. Remember, in his freshman year, he broke Barry Bonds’ record at Arizona State with 25 home runs.”

More:Potential Tigers pick Spencer Torkelson packs more than just a powerful punch

He didn’t just break it, he shattered it by 14. Torkelson was just three home runs shy of becoming the program’s all-time home run leader when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the season.

“To do what he did as a freshman, and then again as a sophomore — and then to have seen the growth this spring, amazing,” Arizona State baseball coach Tracy Smith told the Detroit News last month. “The bat speed is tremendous, But I just think his hit tool is the separator for me. Some players have great power but don’t barrel it up.

“I can’t remember some of his highest exit velos (exit velocity), but I have my eyeballs. You don’t have to tell me what his exit velo is. I see how fast it’s traveling and where it’s landing.” 

Torkelson, who will turn 21 on Aug. 26, followed up his 25-homer freshman season with 23 as a sophomore. He had six in 17 games this season before the shutdown. His three-year totals are staggering: .337 average, .463 on-base percentage, .729 slugging, 1.192 OPS.

This past season, teams were giving him the full Bonds’ treatment — walking him 31 times in 17 games.

“Even though they were still walking Tork at a great pace, they’d occasionally throw him a strike and he would destroy it,” Smith said. “It was something, to maintain that level of concentration. It was a little like Bonds that year (2001, 73 home runs, 177 walks). You’d throw him a strike and it was in San Francisco Bay.”

The plate discipline, as well as his undervalued athleticism, was attractive to the Tigers.

“You see those highly rated guys, the players coming into those first picks of a year’s draft, and what’s the tendency when they’re not seeing pitches to hit?” Smith asked. “They expand the strike zone. They get outside of themselves. It’s, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to be an All-American, carrying my team.’ And then they start doing the thing that helped make them great: swinging at bad pitches.

“He (Torkelson) didn’t do that.”

Spencer Torkelson

The Tigers are expected to sign Torkelson, who is represented by Scott Boras, at or just under the slotted value of $8.415 million — most of which will be deferred over the next two years. The Tigers also hope Torkelson’s first professional action will come later this summer in an enhanced Instructional League in Florida.

“There’s nothing official,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said on Tuesday. “I think if you ask all 30 general managers, they would tell you they hope for some kind of Arizona Fall League or enhanced instructional league where these guys can pitch and hit in competitive situations.

“But there’s nothing officially planned at this point.”

Torkelson, who has been working out at his home in Petaluma, California, is the Tigers' second first overall pick in the last three years. They selected right-handed pitcher Casey Mize out of Auburn in 2019. Last year they drafted Florida high school outfielder Riley Greene with the fifth overall pick.

The Tigers will have five more picks on Thursday — two in the second round (38, 62),  and one in rounds three through five (73, 102, 132).


Twitter: @cmccosky