What Spencer Torkelson’s Demotion Means for the Tigers (and Torkelson’s Career)

The Detroit Tigers are sending former top prospect and first overall pick Spencer Torkelson back to the minor leagues.

Spencer Torkelson #20 of the Detroit Tigers hits a two run rbi single against the Oakland Athletics in the top of the third inning at RingCentral Coliseum.
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 24: Spencer Torkelson #20 of the Detroit Tigers hits a two run rbi single against the Oakland Athletics in the top of the third inning at RingCentral Coliseum on September 24, 2023 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

On Sunday evening, news spread that Detroit Tigers 2020 first-overall pick Spencer Torkelson would be headed to Triple-A Toledo. Torkelson, who blasted 31 home runs just last year, was slashing .201/.266/.330 to start the season.

To Detroit fans, this move comes as no surprise and, in many ways, with much relief. His struggles reached a point where fans had no faith in a positive outcome, let alone a competitive at-bat. First pitch, he would watch strike one. He’d follow that up with a weak pop-out to an infielder. You could tell by his body language that his confidence was lacking, which led to a lack of production as well.

No, Torkelson was never going to provide defensive value. He’s unlikely to ever hit .250. In order to be successful, he needs to lift, and pull, the ball and put up 30-plus home runs seasons. In 2024, he has struggled to find that sweet spot and barrel baseball, leading to him sitting more often and ultimately being sent back to the minors.

via Baseball Savant.

What It Means for Torkelson

This is not the end of the road but more of a roadblock. A wake-up call, a get-right opportunity, and a reminder of how brutal and difficult this game truly is. How Torkelson responds and his willingness to have the right mentality will dictate if he’s a Tiger for years to come.

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He’ll have to start over and focus on his confidence while also proving he can catch up to velocity. Last season, Torkelson hit .210 against breaking balls and .148 on off-speed pitches but did his damage – a .270 average – on fastballs. This is okay; we’ve seen plenty of fastball hitters carve out a career, as long as the power is present.

Yet, in 2024, his .179 average and .292 slugging percentage against fastballs, which he has seen 54% of the time, simply isn’t good enough.

In order to get back into the team’s good graces and earn another opportunity, he’ll have to fix his timing. The lazy pop-outs and swinging late on 92-mph pitches is something you might see in spring training as players ramp up, but it carried over into the season for Torkelson. Maybe the game sped up on him and he lost confidence. I try to be careful when talking about the mental state of a player I have never communicated with, but we must at least consider the possibility.

I don’t expect a quick trip to the minors, a couple of games, and a return. This situation calls for several weeks or definitive proof before the Tigers are willing to give everyday at-bats back to Torkelson and take them away from someone else. He’ll show up to Toledo knowing exactly what he, and the team, want him to work on. Executing and checking items off that list will be his primary concern.

What It Means for the Tigers

In my eyes, this means the Tigers are serious about competing this season. I know, I know, get your jokes off about the team not doing enough over winter. I agree. However, they are willing to pull a former 31-homer hitter off the team because they want to give more at-bats to Mark Canha (and others) to give themselves the best chance to win in 2024.

The Tigers added Justyn-Henry Malloy, one of their top prospects, to the roster, and I expect him to get many of Torkelson’s at-bats. Canha and Gio Urshela will play first, and Malloy will take Canha’s DH/OF reps. Although Malloy is a rookie, I expect a much better approach immediately with better production. He does not need to become an All-Star, he just has to be closer to league average.

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The bigger question is who will play first in the future? Does Torkelson bounce back and establish himself as the answer going forward? While there’s a non-zero chance that happens, this front office did not draft him and could go in a different direction as early as next season.

You might notice the minor league depth at first is lacking true prospects. Jake Holton and Chris Meyers are more likely organizational depth pieces than budding long-term options. The good news? Moving a player to first is usually a pretty smooth transition. Malloy or Jace Jung would be my first looks if the organization does not fill the need via free agency or trade.

No matter how you paint it – he was called up too early, bad COVID crop, etc. – the Tigers missing on the first overall pick would be a problem. While this is just a chapter in Torkelson’s book, there’s some serious work to be done, or else it will become a short story.