'Detroit is a great franchise': Spencer Torkelson admires Tigers, 'beautiful' Michigan

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

He knew months ago the Tigers and Detroit might be his big-league home.

But for Spencer Torkelson, a few tasks lay ahead.

Most urgently, he had to hit and perform worthy of seducing the Tigers with that first overall draft pick set to be announced tonight at 7 when the 2020 Major League Baseball draft (MLB Network, ESPN) is called to order.

Spencer Torkelson appears to be the favorite to be selected No. 1 overall by the Tigers in the 2020 Major League Baseball draft.

In the interim, Torkelson only hoped the Tigers would stick with a 20-year-old right-handed-batting muscleman, even after his Arizona State baseball season was canceled in early March because of a pandemic that picked 2020 to wield its evil ways.

"It was so crazy, the coronavirus — but what kind of gets you through it is everybody's going through the same thing," Torkelson said Tuesday night from his home in Petaluma, California, where he and family and some select friends will watch tonight's draft.

"We're all trying to figure this out and get past it. But it's out of your control. You're mad, maybe, because you can't break some records — well, poor you — but in the grand scheme of things, the world probably needed everybody to take a step back, slow down, and help each other out."

That brand of philosophy — known as "makeup" in the scouts' notebooks — is expected to be one more reason the Tigers will, with tonight's first draft turn, choose a 6-foot-1, 220-pound first baseman who at ASU hit 48 homers across his freshman and sophomore seasons, and who followed with six more in 17 games in 2020, all before COVID-19 struck.

Torkelson's parcel of power and overall hitting has meshed with slick defense to make him the near-certain pick for a Tigers team crying for premier prospect bats. 

The Tigers and agent Scott Boras are expected to settle reasonably amicably on a contract that should pay Torkelson in the vicinity of $8 million.

That's fine with a man in his three seasons with the Sun Devils hit .337, with a 1.192 OPS, built on an overall slugging percentage of .729, and an on-base percentage of .463.

"I'm not a guy to count his chickens before they hatch — I've got to wait until it's official," Torkleson said, preferring to wait until that first pick is made, probably at 7:11 p.m., before making plans for Detroit.

"I've talked to however many (Tigers) executives, and they're all great people," said Torkelson, whose parents, Rick and Lori Torkelson, are partners in a Petaluma accounting firm. "I know everyone in Detroit has a love for the game, and maybe that's what I most admire."

Torkelson said his knowledge of the Tigers was spawned by events the Tigers prefer to forget: the 2012 World Series, which saw a boy and a Giants fan, then 13, watch San Francisco thrash the Tigers in four straight games.

"I watched those games," Torkelson said, mentioning Tigers co-aces Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. "Those guys were just studs.

"But I know Detroit is a great, storied franchise, and I know the Detroit area is beautiful. Downtown is up and coming. I've had people tell me how much it's getting modernized. I know Michigan is a beautiful place."

The Tigers, alas, have not been beautiful in the years since Torkelson last saw them. They have finished with baseball's worst record two of the past three seasons, setting up a roster restructuring in which Torkelson's bat is expected to be at the heart of a new lineup's brick and mortar.

The Tigers understand Torkelson's knack for hitting at a high percentage, all while obliterating fences, carries a bonus: His ability to judge close pitches and take walks.

That piece of handiwork helps explain this year's .463 on-base average. Torkelson walked 31 times in 17 games. It was an indicator of what opposing pitchers thought of Torkelson and the harm he might do to them, and to their teams.

Torkelson struck out 15 times in those 17 games, all while rolling up 1.378 OPS that was on its way to perhaps eclipsing last year's OPS of 1.153.

Just how a three-month competitive layoff might affect Torkelson is a fair question. But one man, at least, has an answer.

"It's tough, but I never saw it as an issue," he said, offering perspective from his first two years at ASU. "When I go home for winter break, after fall ball ends, it's the beginning of November, and you stop live at-bats until the middle of January.

"Then, you go hit against a couple bullpens, and it all comes back to you. In two, three weeks, you're all locked in again."

Once the college season died, Torkelson began adjusting as billions of people began viewing new realities and routines.

"At first, I was kind of in shock," he said. "I didn't know what to do with myself. I'd work out, hit, play some golf, and be home by 5 in the afternoon.

"What do I do now? I stayed in Arizona for 2½ weeks. I honestly didn't believe what was happening. I kept saying: 'It's coming back, it's coming back, it's all a bad dream.'

"So, then I went home and built a batting cage in my backyard. One of my best friends has a gym, so I've been keeping up with my skills just fine."

He finished online courses in early May, and since has been getting his hitting tuneups with help from an uncle.

"We put him 45 feet away (as opposed to the regulation 60 feet, 6 inches), and have him throw batting practice," Torkelson said. "I think, from that distance it might be equivalent to a 100 mph fastball."

Torkelson does not turn 21 until Aug. 26. It's an important distinction in the minds of scouts. That late birthday means Torkelson has, each summer, generally been working against older competition.

How it all unfurls for him after Wednesday, Torkelson can only imagine. A contract is expected to be signed relatively quickly, and with relatively few holdups, given the probability Boras and Detroit have come to some accord on general contract contours.

Then there are matters impossible at this hour to determine: Will there be a 2020 big-league season? Will there be an immediate Instructional League for players drafted this week? 

Will the pandemic ease its grip on the world, and on baseball? 

"Again, I don't like to dwell on things I can't control," Torkelson said. "What can you do about it? In one respect, I think it's a beautiful way for everybody to come together and make this world a better place."

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