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Hitting chops will help sort out Tigers' fresh-faced logjam of position prospects

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Exactly where all these new Tigers are supposed to play isn’t yet clear. Probably because the Tigers are still trying to deal with the reality that a baseball roster skinny on bats now must confront — ideally, anyway — a potential I-696-style, rush-hour traffic jam of position contestants, much of which arrived courtesy of last month’s MLB Draft.

Spencer Torkelson? The guy even Detroit’s front-office bosses quietly acknowledge could be playing in Detroit in a year or so? He’s at third base, which is interesting, given that former top-gun prospect hitter Isaac Paredes was looking like the answer at third.

Tigers top draft pick Spencer Torkelson will start his professional career at third base.

Or rather, such was the case before Torkelson’s sidekick at Arizona State, Gage Workman, who actually played third for ASU, was nabbed by Detroit in last month’s draft. Workman now will at least audition at shortstop as roster experimentations begin inside the Tigers’ developmental laboratories.

Back to Paredes, the 21-year-old, right-handed slasher who before June qualified as that rarest of Tigers species: a valid infielder and hitter who was poised to join the Tigers as early as this season. Where now does he migrate — that is, if the Tigers aren’t just kidding with the Torkelson-to-third blindside that followed a former first baseman’s anointing as the 2020 MLB Draft’s first overall choice?

“If they can hit, we’ll find a place for them,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of player development, as he took a break from Monday’s so-called summer camp workouts at Comerica Park. “Torkelson and Paredes — both guys look like they’ve got some real potential, offensively.

“But there won’t be any logjams if two guys show they can hit.”

Paredes has played second base, as well, in his baseball life and hasn’t been excluded from thoughts there, Littlefield said, even as Kody Clemens — a third-round pick two years ago — grinds to win long-term work at second.

A similar scenario could be evolving at shortstop — should the Tigers find in Workman that his size (6-foot-3, 185 pounds) and switch-hitting power make him a possible value-add of enormous scope.

No problem, say the Tigers, that they drafted a true shortstop in last month’s third round: Trei Cruz, from Rice University. They suggest Cruz has enough flexibility to help at a variety of places, including shortstop, which is where he just might land should the Torkelson-Workman position rearrangement not go as optimally planned.

This is all about taking a calculated shot, Littlefield said Monday — relying on athleticism to offer position dividends the Tigers haven’t known for 40-plus years. That, by the way, is when a couple of guys named Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker came aboard and Whitaker moved from third base to second base as Trammell settled in at shortstop. It was also the same time that one Lance Parrish, a third baseman in high school, was drafted by the Tigers and moved to catcher.

Tork's transition

Some benefits emerged from those and other shuffles, as confirmed by a 1984 World Championship flag that later was raised in Detroit.

Of all the re-designs now being contemplated by the Tigers, it’s Torkelson’s move from first base to third that is the most intriguing.

Spencer Torkelson

It was known long before he was drafted that a glorious hitter was playing first base for the Sun Devils mostly because ASU had on its roster a sellout crowd of All-American infielders. Torkelson, it was acknowledged by his coaches and big-league scouts, was a first baseman just waiting to be deployed at another post: third base, the outfield, even shortstop.

The Tigers realize the easy move, and perhaps the inevitable verdict, will be to send Torkelson scurrying back to first base. No harm, no foul — he can play deftly at his old home and can be returned there with no penalties, the Tigers say.

But, of course, it’s easier in baseball to find first basemen. Third basemen who can hit with the crunch carried by Torkelson are true phenomena and can help immensely in taking a franchise from its rebuilding sketches to one with playoff and championship muscle.

At least during these early hours of a re-programmed 2020 season, the Tigers have seen nothing to scare them as Torkelson sets up at third.

“Looks good,” Littlefield said of Torkelson’s early reviews. “We saw him there yesterday. He was certainly showing skills sufficient for third base. Everyone said the same thing.”

As for “everyone,” Littlefield had identities: Ron Gardenhire, Tigers manager; general manager Al Avila; David Chadd, assistant GM; and Trammell, the Hall of Famer who works as an all-purpose assistant to Avila.

Torkelson’s glove is sound, Littlefield said, adding that his arm “looks good — certainly adequate to play third base.”

 A gifted kid’s talents were considered so polished that he got an invitation to join the 60-man manifest the Tigers are using as part of MLB’s pandemic-padded rosters ahead of 2020’s delayed season start-up. The group includes another potential prize from last month’s draft, catcher Dillon Dingler, who was taken with the second round’s first pick.

Other players who were part of June’s draft haul are training less formally. They won’t gather for official Tigers drills until, perhaps, this autumn when the team hopes to have an expanded Instructional League at Lakeland, Florida.

That cast includes outfielder Daniel Cabrera, who was the Tigers’ bonus second-round choice, as well as fifth-rounder Colt Keith, a prep whiz from Mississippi. Cabrera, should be hit as advertised, figures within a couple of seasons to be manning left field at Comerica Park, perhaps alongside Riley Greene, who is viewed as the Tigers’ next regular center-fielder. Right field? That’s to be decided — either by free agency, or by one of the youngsters the Tigers are otherwise grooming: perhaps Bryant Packard or Parker Meadows.

It’s also possible that Torkelson, if third base isn’t seen as ideal, could slide to right field.

Gauging Workman

As for Workman, he too is waiting for the pandemic to ease and for life to resume at TigerTown, where Littlefield confirmed Workman will get at least a look at shortstop.

Gage Workman

In the same fashion the Tigers could see a big bat settle at third base — a premium position that rarely blends All-Star offense with serviceable defense — Workman’s body and bat make him a potential draft bonanza should he survive at short.

At least one other scout from a billboard big-league team says the Tigers are wise to try Workman at short. It’s the very position the scout urged his team to consider Workman ahead of June’s draft. And, the scout said, to think of him as early as a second-round pick.

The scout requested anonymity because of extreme sensitivity scouts place on their proprietary reports.

Workman, the scout said, was one of this year’s best overall athletes and of particular appeal because he does not turn 21 until Oct. 24. It meshes with another reason Torkelson, who does not turn 21 until August, had such extraordinary draft-day stock. Players with later birthdays typically have been competing against older competition their entire lives — a heavy plus when projecting upside.

Playing last summer at the blue-chip Cape Cod League, where he started at shortstop in 37 games, Workman was the coaches’ consensus second-best shortstop among all Cape Cod players, the scout said. The best of the Cape’s talents at short? Alika Williams, Torkelson’s and Workman’s cohort at ASU, who was grabbed 37th overall by the Rays in last month’s first round.        

Workman followed with a strong fall-league at ASU, the scout said, and then, after a slow start this spring — his habit during three seasons with the Sun Devils — he had just begun showing the moxie and more polished hitting talent, as well as fewer strikeouts, which had been his style last autumn and during the 2020 preseason.

The pandemic’s arrival killed what would have been, in the scout’s estimation, a gradually super-heated spring for Workman that would have made him closer to an early second-round pick, or even a prize in the “sandwich” (compensation) region between the

The scout said Detroit’s plucking of Workman in the fourth round was all but a guaranteed steal. His ability to transfer to shortstop is easily explained, the scout said: above-average hands, with an above-average and accurate arm. Workman reads the ball well off the bat, with enough foot-speed to make plays in all directions.

The only issue, the scout said, would be the possibility — with Workman’s probable physical growth — that he would become too big for short. At that point he could return to third base with the expectation of competing for a Gold Glove.

The scout emphasized Workman’s athleticism, citing his years as a dandy basketball player at Basha High in Chandler, Arizona. His first steps from the batter’s box, while not as quick as big-league teams prefer, belie above-average speed, the scout said.

His overall skills and superior makeup qualify him as a Ben Zobrist-type of player, the scout said, who could fill in anywhere on a field.

The scout’s caveat: a switch-hitter with raw power who is slightly better from the left side of the plate must adjust to make more contact and cut down on strikeouts. The scout said Workman was just beginning to show real progress there when the season shut down.

Had he finished his junior year, the scout said, Workman never would have been available by the time Detroit had its fourth-round turn. His talents and likely 2020 spring would have had his draft status zooming. Workman, the scout said, has an exceptional shot at becoming an everyday MLB player.

Will the scouting report on Workman become prophetic? Will the early critiques of Torkelson’s work at third base hold once games and big-league-grade hot smashes arrive like batted bullets?

Will even two, or three, of those six players the Tigers today feel so enthused about become the crux of a contender’s lineup, given the sadistic ways of baseball? Or, will the brunt of them crash-land in the farmlands and a few years from now be part of draft-day’s endless line of casualties?

Percentages never are a team’s friend when it comes to prospects. So very few players can cut it. But, at the same time, 40 years of odds say the Tigers were due to hit — big —- on a draft. Ironically, in a year and in a draft so crimped and condensed by COVID-19, a team from Detroit might have caught the most unlikely of breaks.

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