The Toledo Mud Hens wrapped up a five-game set with the Louisville Bats on Sunday, winning by a score of 9-4. Still, the Bats took the series three games to two. What matters, is that the Detroit Tigers’ top prospects finish strong, and Spencer Torkelson in particular is absolutely raging on his way to the finish line in September.
Across three levels in 2021, the power-hitting first baseman has certainly posted some gaudy numbers. Torkelson has launched 29 home runs on the year, with a less exciting .267 batting average, but an excellent .380 on base percentage. However, as we saw early this spring, Torkelson didn’t exactly hit the ground running. He struggled mightily in his first spring camp and early on with High-A West Michigan, though as his first professional work some struggles were expected. But it certainly looked a lot worse than normal acclimation for a while. That makes the enormous progress he’s made this year all the more remarkable. Even better, is the fact that he’s still rapidly improving as the competition has gotten tougher and his first year of pro ball stretches into its seventh month, camp included.
Torkelson made that point with emphasis over the weekend. If there was an obvious weakness remaining when he was promoted to Triple-A Toledo along with fellow top prospect Riley Greene back on August 15th, it was Torkelson’s vulnerability to pitches on the outer edge. Too often, a right-handed pitcher capable of spotting their fastball and breaking ball away could deal with Torkelson without too much danger. He was still trying to pull those pitches too often, leading him to roll over on grounders to the middle infielders.
The emphasis in recent weeks has been to take what is offered, letting those pitches travel deep in the zone and drilling them to the opposite field. And as with every detail he’s attacked this season, Torkelson appears to be figuring it out rapidly. He’s hit home runs in each of his last three games, making that eight in the month of September, his highest monthly total so far. He hasn’t stopped spraying doubles to the walls either. More and more of them are going to right field, and as he’s shown, Torkelson is plenty capable of crushing balls with authority in that direction.
Take a look at this collection of highlights below. The first is the shot from Friday night’s game. This pitch is on the inner third, and instead of pulling it, we see Torkelson keep his hands inside and through the ball, crushing it to center field for number 27 on the year.
Spencer Torkelson hit a homer, and that’s obvious— Farm To Fame (@FarmToFame_) September 25, 2021
Now, here he is on Saturday, going to right field for a double into the corner, and then, when he gets another one on the outer third, look at how he keeps his hands in, lets the ball travel, and smokes it out to right field. Thanks to our friends at Tigers Minor League Report for the clip.
MLB No. 4 prospect Spencer Torkelson sliced an opposite-field double to put the Triple-A @MudHens on the board this afternoon.— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 25, 2021
Watch top #Tigers prospects and every single bit of Triple-A Final Stretch action FREE on https://t.co/Wpm9RN5Q9I: https://t.co/6017DaasjW pic.twitter.com/2L0Uawrftc
Spencer Torkelson with a HUGE 3-run blast to the opposite field to give Toledo a 5-3 lead in the 7th. His 28th home run of the year. pic.twitter.com/1QhPMnV9oD— Tigers Minor League Report (@tigersMLreport) September 25, 2021
Sunday’s game with the Bats gave us several more examples of his devastating plate coverage. Fear not about his ability to turn and mash pitches to left field. The batspeed is fantastic. If you pitch him in, you’re going to get hurt. But more and more, if you pitch him away? Yeah, you’re liable to get hurt there too.
Two innings, two pitchers, two hits for Spencer Torkelson. This one a over the right fielder’s head. pic.twitter.com/4KERTZSVNl— Tigers Minor League Report (@tigersMLreport) September 26, 2021
Spencer Torkelson is making a very good case that he’s going to be ready for major league action from the jump in 2022. Obviously, he’ll have to perform well in camp. No doubt A.J. Hinch would like to have him from the start, but they’ll have to assess for themselves how Torkelson’s bat and defense will play out of the gate, and whether there is anything left to work on in the minor leagues. I would personally argue that there is not, and it’s telling that as most first year pros are feeling the effects of the longest and toughest year of baseball in their lives, Torkelson is storming his way to the finish line and demonstrating ongoing improvement in the process.
While Torkelson has stolen the show recently, the Tigers do have two other prospects with a higher OPS with the Mud Hens. Both Riley Greene and infielder Ryan Kreidler have done their part to keep the pace up.
Greene was on base twice in Friday night’s loss, with a single and a walk out of the leadoff spot, where he’s spent just about every game with the Mud Hens. Greene had a single, a double, and a walk on Saturday, and singled on Sunday. He has five home runs and five doubles in September, and has continued to show himself capable of playing major league caliber corner outfield as well.
This is all the more impressive as Greene is due to turn just 21 years of age on Tuesday. For that reason, his season remains the really eye-popping one, and considering his high probability of greater defensive value than Torkelson, the argument about which is really the Tigers’ top prospect remains very much an open, if fundamentally irrelevant, question.
Greene has absolutely destroyed left-handed pitching all year, and holds a 1.051 OPS against southpaws. However, that mark is a more modest .846 against right-handers. The samples here, particularly against lefties, aren’t huge, but they do argue that Greene isn’t going to have problems with same-handed pitching. Against right-handers, there is a little more swing and miss, and Greene is still a little vulnerable against good high fastballs and back-footed sliders, but they do have to be quality pitches to tie him up.
Overall, he holds a 27.8 percent strikeout rate, showing room for improvement. Still, in his first full year of professional ball he’s moved from High-A all the way to Triple-A as a 20-year-old and succeeded at every level. The trajectory is outstanding, and it’s going to be pretty hard for the Tigers to argue that he isn’t their best option for one of the outfield positions right from the start.
If the Tigers are true to general manager Al Avila’s words this weekend, you can’t leave two of your best players in the minor leagues. Hopefully the new collective bargaining agreement will address the service time issue.
“We can’t really disclose everything that we’re looking at. Just rest assured that we’re going to try to improve this team for next year and make a big push,” Avila said. “We feel we’re very close to being a playoff-contending team. We’re not too far away.”
Our final subject is the big mover in the Tigers’ system this season, shortstop Ryan Kreidler. When the UCLA product was drafted in the fourth round of the 2019 draft, he was pegged as a somewhat light hitting infielder who would have a difficult time sticking at shortstop. The light-hitting part is now out the window, as Kreidler has done consistent damage all year long, launching 22 home runs overall, performing well for his experience level at Double-A and then surprising everyone by hitting the afterburners upon his arrival in Toledo.
Kreidler has always shown solid control of the strike zone, but was still vulnerable to good right-handers most of the year. He was too much a free-swinger in Erie, and was sometimes exploited by righties with good breaking balls. A 30.7 percent strikeout rate and very pedestrian numbers against right-handed pitching there illustrated the point, and as a result we cautioned patience. But in the 35 games he’s played with the Mud Hens, he’s certainly shown improvement on that score, boosting his walk rate almost five percent, and trimming his strikeout rate by over six percent.
Kreidler needs to continue to work on balancing his splits and closing some of the holes in his swing and approach that leave him vulnerable to good right-handed pitching. He also needs to continue to refine his defense at the shortstop position. His tools defensively are perhaps enough to stick at shortstop if things go right with the bat, but his defense isn’t going to carry him.
There is a future for Kreidler in which he is a lefty mashing bench player capable of handling any position in the infield acceptably well. There is also a future in which his approach improves against right-handed pitching, and he mashes enough that you can start him just about anywhere in the infield on a regular basis.
Kreidler broke out this year in a big way, and he’s continued to make adjustments and improve. For now, it’s time to let that progress soak in. If he can consolidate these gains this offseason, and come out with a strong first half next season, A.J. Hinch is going to want a look and Kreidler could find himself with an everyday role if there’s an injury up the middle. If Kreidler continues to pour it on and shows improvement against right-handers next season, he may fight his way into an everyday role no matter what.
The Mud Hens will finish their 2021 season at home starting Wednesday night, and we would advise you all to get to Toledo to see this show in person if you can.