In 2019, the Detroit Tigers finished the season with a record of 47-114, easily the worst in the league that year. The silver lining in a season that bad is receiving the first overall selection in the next year’s draft. The Tigers used the first overall pick in the 2020 draft on Spencer Torkelson, a first baseman out of Arizona State University. (At the time, the club announced him as a third baseman, despite him not playing that position in college.)
Torkelson wasn’t able to play any organized ball for the Tigers that year, as the pandemic wiped out all of the minor league seasons, but 2021 was a rocketship ride up the minor league ladder. He started the year in High-A, playing 31 games and mashing at a rate of .312/.440/.569, wRC+ of 171. A promotion to a higher quality of competition in Double-A dampened his production, but only slightly. In 50 games there, he hit .263/.373/.560, for a wRC+ of 148. He was promoted yet again and got into 40 Triple-A games. Although the higher quality of pitching led to a decreased batting average, he still hit for power and drew walks, slashing .238/.350/.531, 129 wRC+. After that, he went to the Arizona Fall League but was sidelined with an ankle injury after just seven games. He is expected to be fully recovered for spring training. He is now considered the #4 prospect in all of baseball by all three of Baseball America, MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs.
After that tremendous showing at all levels, he seems a virtual lock to join the big leagues in 2022, the only questions will be about the date and which position he plays. In college, Torkelson primarily played first base, with a bit of outfield work sprinkled in. But when the Tigers drafted him, they announced him as a third baseman. In 2021, he played first and third somewhat evenly to start the year, with first base taking over as the season wore on. At High-A, he got into 15 games at first and 16 at third, with his Double-A stint featuring 23 at first and 27 at third. But in Triple-A, he played first base in 37 games, none at the hot corner. However, he did get into a couple of games at third base in the Arizona Fall League before the injury.
First base would seem to be the best path to playing time for Torkelson, both because of his greater experience at the position and because of the current makeup of the Tigers’ roster. Jeimer Candelario seems to have locked himself in as the third baseman after a strong pair of seasons with the bat. In the shortened 2020 season, he hit .297/.369/.503 for a wRC+ of 138 over 52 games. Although he played more first base than third that year, he moved across the diamond in 2021, playing 142 games at third and not appearing at first at all. Statcast considered him to be a roughly league-average defender, as he finished the year at -1 Outs Above Average. He also had another good year at the plate, hitting .271/.351/.443, 119 wRC+.
The situation at first base, however, can fit Torkelson into the picture much more easily. The Tigers gave most of the first base playing time to Jonathan Schoop in 2021, as he appeared in 114 games there. But that was Schoop’s first showing at the position, as he had largely been a second baseman prior to that. He even played 38 games at the keystone last year. If Torkelson were to take over at first base, Schoop could slide back to his traditional position at second. That would create a bit of a crowd in the middle infield for the Tigers, as they signed Javier Baez to take over the shortstop position. If Schoop was getting regular playing time at second, there would be little room for younger players like Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes and Zack Short. None of those players have fully cemented themselves as everyday regulars just yet, but for a Tigers team that is looking to emerge from a lengthy rebuild, it should still be a priority to give chances for unproven players to blossom and take a step forward.
One way to help with this crowding would be to rotate these players through the designated hitter slot, giving them a bit of a rest while still getting reps in the batter’s box. However, that raises the question of how many DH at-bats will be going to Miguel Cabrera. While there’s no questioning he’s one of the greatest hitters of his generation, he hasn’t been an above-average hitter over a full season since 2016. His wRC+ dropped to 92 in 2017, then bounced back to 127 in 2018, though injuries cut his season short after just 38 games. In 2019, he dropped just below the league average of 100 again, coming in at 97. He snuck over the line in 2020 with a mark of 103, though that was the pandemic-shortened campaign. In 2021, he dropped down to 92 again.
Up until now, letting the veteran continue to play out his contract and hit career milestones hasn’t been an issue as the team hasn’t been earnestly trying to compete for some time. But push will likely come to shove at some point, as the club has already spent a lot of money this offseason in order to wipe their hands of this lengthy rebuild. Even if they don’t become AL Central favorites right out of the gate in 2022, Cabrera still has two guaranteed years remaining on his contract and will turn 39 in April. After getting 526 plate appearances in 130 games in 2021, how much rope will he get going forward? Is he destined to be squeezed out by younger players and eventually let loose in a similar manner to what happened to Albert Pujols last year? Or at least nudged into the type of bench role that Pujols settled into with the Dodgers? Cabrera is sitting on 2,987 hits and will surely be given the chance to cross the monumental 3,000 barrier, but at a certain point, the team’s desire to compete will clash with their desire for Cabrera to get the proper legacy treatment.
Regardless of how it plays out, the future seems bright for the Tigers. They have a roster with heaps of young talent that showed signs of promise in 2021. After a miserable 8-19 start in April, they went 69-66 the rest of the way. Since then, they’ve added Baez, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Tucker Barnhart to try and take them to the next level. With prospects like Torkelson, Riley Greene and Dillon Dingler on the way to help as well, they seem poised to be a fun and competitive team for years to come.