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Tigers future taking shape with Spencer Torkelson, Kody Clemens, other top prospects

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Rain slammed the Tigers during Monday’s game against the Blue Jays at Marchant Stadium’s Publix Field.

Not that it overly bothered Spencer Torkelson and Kody Clemens, a pair of infielders who have been enjoying October during the Tigers’ five-week Instructional Camp at Lakeland, Florida.

Spencer Torkelson

Torkelson in Monday’s first inning got a 2-2 fastball and drove it high into the sky and onto the berm beyond Publix Field’s left-field wall. For those analytically scoring at home, the ball had a 39-degree launch angle and 104-mph exit velocity, which typically will beget a home run even when a mean breeze is blowing in, as it was Monday.

“It wasn’t a no-doubter, but I thought I got it,” said Torkelson, the 2020 MLB Draft’s first-overall choice, and a right-handed basher the Tigers are auditioning at third base. “Just pulled my hands in – it felt great.”

Clemens, like Torkelson, had a lone at-bat Monday but did just fine, ripping a single to center. It gave the Tigers’ top organizational second baseman and a left-handed batter three singles in the three games in which he has had four- or five-inning stints since the Tigers began Instructional League duels last week.

It was where Clemens lined his single Monday that might have been as satisfying as the hit itself. Opposing teams have been putting a heavy, pull-side shift on Clemens, who is 24, and who three years ago was the Tigers’ third-round pick out of the University of Texas.

Clemens beat the shifts twice last week with hard ground singles to right. The right-side overload wasn’t interfering with Monday’s liner.

“There’s a ton of shifts now with all the analytics,” Clemens said Monday, by way of a Zoom media conference. “I’ve been working on (hitting to) the left side of the field. I know I can do that. I did it in college, going opposite field.

“Last year, I guess I got pull-happy and the shifts started. But I know I can spread those guys out and make ‘em go to their regular spots.”

Clemens explained that where pitchers work him in the zone has its effects. His hot RBI singles last week came, first, on a slider in, and secondly, on a fastball that also got in on him.

Monday’s single to center, by contrast, came against a fastball that caught more of the plate’s middle.

“I’ve struggled to get that left side of the field involved in hitting, but I’m always working to hit the ball to the left-center gap,” said Clemens, who is trying to stake claim to that wide-open second base hole on the Tigers farm. “I know I’ve got pull-side power – anyone can have that. But staying opposite-sided, hitting heaters to left-center, and then going with off-speed crushers (pull-side home runs). I’m working on that, not only in the Constellation League, but here.”

Summer sojourn

Ah, the Constellation League, officially known as the Constellation Energy League. It is an Independent baseball group that this summer was based just outside of Houston. By hooking up with the league’s Team Texas entity, Clemens was able to get 100 at-bats against quality pitchers who either have significant minor-league portfolios or who have pitched also in the big leagues.

Clemens agrees it gave him a jump against the young guns he has been seeing during the past week in Florida, even though Blue Jays and Pirates prospects have, on balance, been throwing harder than was the norm in Texas.

Kody Clemens

“I was really fortunate to have had those 100 at-bats,” Clemens said, talking about his Constellation League sojourn. “It wasn’t just a mom-and-pop league. There was really good pitching there. And it was really good for me to see that.”

Torkelson had a different kind of summer. It began in Detroit, only a few weeks after the Tigers drafted him out of Arizona State. He joined the big-league team for a few days before moving to Toledo for taxi-squad duty as part of the 60-man manifest the Tigers could take into MLB’s July-through-September schedule.

Savvy gained from working against legitimate big-league pitchers has been on display during the past week at Lakeland. Torkelson has, for the most part, either been taking walks, or tattooing pitches, as he did Monday.

“This is way better than facing your own guys,” Torkelson said Monday, referring to the steady stream of intra-squad pitchers he saw, and saw, and saw at Toledo.

“I was getting sick of facing Tigers,” he said, not meaning it as a grievance. “I wanted to put the hurt on someone else.

“It feels more real here. And I really enjoy it.”

Torkelson’s right-handed swing isn’t so much the Tigers’ concern during a camp that wraps up Nov. 8.

It has to do with his new position, third base. A high school shortstop who later turned into a college first baseman, Torkelson now is at third as the Tigers work to realign their infield. They want to better avail themselves of infield tools Torkelson, by all assessments, had at ASU and that scouts say always equipped him to play third base, or an outfield corner.

He is learning the third-base trade as a pure apprentice. This will not be an overnight conversion, the Tigers know, although Alan Trammell, who happens to be a Hall of Fame shortstop as well as an assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila, has been among those working with Torkelson and among those who believes Torkelson will stick at third.

The group includes a rookie from ASU.

“I love it, it’s a lot of fun,” Torkelson said. “I like having something to work on. No one’s perfect, but it’s going well. Tram (Trammell) has been unbelievable – very positive.

“Give me a couple more ground balls and some practice and I’ll be right there.”

Spencer Torkelson believes third base will be his permanent defensive home.

Ask him if he feels as if this is his new, and permanent, defensive home and Torkelson doesn’t flinch. Yes, he said Monday, absolutely.

On a 10-point scale, he put his comfort level at first base at 10 during his Sun Devils days, while he gives third base an 8 after a few months of transition.

His hitting, comfort-wise, is probably more like 11 for a man who made his prized June draft stock the old-fashioned way: He hit the bejabbers out of baseballs.

“I feel great, my swing feels good,” said Torkelson, who last month turned 21. “I feel balanced, aggressive, with a selective approach.”

Hence, all those walks, which he likewise was accustomed taking by the bushel at ASU.

“We’re not here to hit a home run or to strike out,” he said, explaining that Tigers development staffers have been pounding home the deep-count mantra. “All our players pride ourselves on our approach: If you’ve got two strikes you’re choking up and punching something the other way.

“Pitching and defense ultimately wins championships, but you need to score runs, and I’m pretty sure the top five or six teams left (in October’s playoffs) were probably also tops in on-base and slugging.”

Defense first 

Torkelson talked Monday about his personal two-strike approach: sitting on a fastball away, trying to drive it over second base, which he trusts will allow his eyes to adjust to something off-speed and react accordingly.

He mentioned something else that was as much a tribute to his co-Tigers top prospect, outfielder Riley Greene, who, yes, walked Monday.

“It helps to have Riley on base,” Torkelson said. “A pitcher doesn’t want to spike a curveball, or necessarily throw a curveball there.

“It gives you a little more confidence about what’s coming."

But it’s defense he is most concerned about during these 35 days in Lakeland. And, that, frankly, is what has his bosses fixated. Having a third baseman with Torkelson’s probable big-league bat is a feature championship clubs so often flaunt.

Torkelson doesn’t mind that he displaced his old ASU teammate, Gage Workman, who played third base for the Sun Devils but now is working, quite pleasingly, at shortstop.

Ah, Torkelson said, if only folks knew how good of a shortstop Workman was when he got to ASU. Workman played third, and Torkelson played first, only because Alika Williams was an even better shortstop.

“Everyone here is really amazed,” Torkelson said, quoting many an observer who has watched Workman’s ways in Lakeland: ‘Why the hell was he playing third base?’

“He’s an athlete, a switch hitter, with a great arm,” Torkelson said, mentioning that neither he nor Workman minds this new left-side configuration. “He’s pretty much everything you could ask for in a shortstop.”

The experimentation, the new deployments, the mixing of young men and talents, continues at Lakeland.

But whether it’s trying to re-seed an organizational infield with Torkelson, Workman, and Clemens, or setting up a future outfield built around Greene, Daniel Cabrera, Parker Meadows, Bryant Packard, etc., it’s the finished product that matters.

And especially, in the Tigers’ view, if it has its payoff in Detroit, at Comerica Park, and preferably as part of some old-time October playoff theater the Tigers once upon a time adopted as habit.