Henning: Spencer Torkelson's position transition a motivated move by Tigers
Funny how, in a year when the Tigers had but six draft picks, they made more noise and stoked more fan fire than in years when they’ve had 40 draft rounds.
This is what adding bats can do to Comerica Park’s customers. And, more critically, for a rebuild that now has a shot at becoming a new Tigers roster reliant on more than big arms.
Spencer Torkelson was the grand gift, absolutely, from last week’s pandemic-crimped talent sweepstakes that saw the Tigers take Torkelson first, three more potential lineup prizes in the draft’s first 73 picks, and two more hitters thereafter, including prep hotshot Colt Keith.
The Tigers haven’t drafted a franchise-caliber bat since 1978 when they thought Kirk Gibson had a chance to be just that. But in grabbing Torkelson, the projections are safer. Torkelson is more polished by any measure than was Gibson. He should be a better overall bat with a chance to be a regular All-Star.
The rest of the cast, for all the glitter, comes with questions baseball insists on asking.
Will their second-round choice, a potential steal in Ohio State catcher Dillon Dingler, prove that taking northern hitters can be more than a dice-roll, especially when Dingler had a hamate-bone issue a year ago and did not play summer ball? There was a reason he fell to the draft’s 38th pick. Scouts either didn’t like Dingler’s injury file or his track record from too little showcasing the past year.
Daniel Cabrera, the Tigers’ compensation selection, is at the same rough elevation. Is he more likely a big-league fourth outfielder, which explains why he slipped to the draft’s 62nd turn, or is he a quality No. 2-style hitter who can be at home at a position where Christin Stewart simply can’t find his way on defense?
Take a peek at Trey Cruz, the Rice University shortstop, and venture a guess on whether his bat holds up well enough to make him more than perhaps a newer version of handyman infielder Ramon Santiago, which come to think of it, isn’t a bad guy to have on your game-day roster season after season.
And what about Keith, maybe the most athletic of all the Tigers’ picks last week? There was a reason a kid with third-round, or better, talent fell to fifth. Whatever the explanation, Detroit is betting that it just might — emphasis on might — have made the biggest fifth-round heist since a guy named Jack Morris was snagged in 1976.
It leaves one more pick to be assessed, and wondered about:
Gage Workman, the guy who played third base opposite Torkelson at first base on Arizona State’s ridiculously talented infield.
What gives here? Torkelson is being moved to third base — at least for now. Workman is headed elsewhere, perhaps even shortstop, which tells you what kind of athlete Workman is.
But what was the deeper story? The Tigers, at a kind of Hollywood spotlight moment, announced they were claiming the top bat in America and moving that hitter to a new, and more difficult, position.
This was all run past Kiley McDaniel, the ESPN draft analyst and former big-league scout, who has an eye for talent and a sharp sense for how front offices think.
“Torkelson I get a little bit,” McDaniel said during a Thursday phone conversation, offering thoughts on how an athlete of Torkelson’s stead might fare at third. “I would give it a try.
“I’d probably give it a 50% chance that he plays a full big-league season at third. But this also is a team that played Miguel Cabrera there. I wouldn’t count it out.”
Another motive can’t be ignored. The Tigers might snort at such a notion. But there’s enough dividend to make McDaniel’s theory plausible.
“I also would not be surprised if, in considering the whole thing, they just wanted to change the conversation,” said McDaniel, who in tandem with Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs, this spring released a book serious baseball students should grab: “Future Value,” with its subtitle: “The battle for baseball’s soul and how teams will find the next superstar.”
McDaniel explained that moving Torkelson to third base canceled one of last week’s immediate Torkelson story lines: No first baseman has ever been taken one-one, as they say of the draft’s first overall pick.
Rather than look at first base as a weakness, or as diminished luster, fans and baseball critics could dive into thoughts about Torkelson having an overall game strong enough to swap corner-infield spots.
“At some point during a rebuild,” McDaniel said, turning to the storyline issue, “press (media attention) matters.”
As, of course, does marketability. Should he stick at third, Torkelson makes himself a mightier potential free agent — or a sweeter franchise investment for the Tigers.
There also is baseball reality to consider. First basemen tend to be easier to find than third basemen.
This, perhaps, is where Workman fits in, as well. McDaniel believes it’s wise for the Tigers to at least give Workman a shot at shortstop, just to see if footwork and natural traits allow a 6-foot-3 switch-hitter to survive there.
If not, then the Tigers can always think about Workman sliding elsewhere, even at first base as a potential position flip-flop with Torkelson. That, of course, all depends not only on Torkelson’s adjustment, but on Workman chopping down on strikeouts and evolving as the crunching power bat that last week had the Tigers dreaming.
It also invites questions about the current roster. Specifically, Torkelson’s purported move to third base has implications for one-time Tigers bright light Isaac Paredes.
Until last week, Paredes was known as the best of the Tigers’ farm-hand hitters. He also was a third baseman.
It adds spice to the Torkelson position announcement.
The Tigers have been pushing Paredes for three years to lose weight. They have been bothered by Paredes’ pounds since the day they got him from the Cubs in the 2017 deadline deal that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to Chicago.
Paredes weighs somewhere in the range of 220 to 225, to the extent past weigh-ins matter then and now. He is, at most, 5-foot-11. This is weight a catcher can afford to carry. You can perhaps be of this proportion and also play a corner outfield spot. Or, as Prince Fielder confirmed, first base.
But the left side of an infield is all about range and mobility. The Tigers plainly have come to a consensus that Paredes’ body isn’t changing. Where, or how, he otherwise fits into a lineup isn’t clear. More and more, it appears that’s for Paredes to figure out.
Implied for sure is that the Tigers are pondering other options, which if Torkelson’s transition works could in fact lead to a heavy upgrade, offensively and defensively. It’s the kind of engineering strategy necessary — particularly so across their infield — as new pieces are assembled for that supposed new contender they’re trying to construct at Comerica Park.
This draft should help matters, no question. Torkelson will not disappoint. He is a rare hitter, the kind a draft might offer once every decade or so. “Superstar” is a word worn from overuse. But in this Californian, who does not turn 21 until August, the Tigers have brought aboard a player who has that kind of capacity.
Apart from Torkelson, the rest of the cast is what drafted baseball players always are: blackjack cards. You might score with some. But percentages tend to rule.
It’s so tough to beat the house, especially when the house has odds as unforgiving as those offered at big-league baseball’s cruel casino.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.