Through the Detroit Tigers’ first nine games of Grapefruit League play, and with the regular season less than two weeks away, it’s difficult to make a compelling argument that top prospects Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson shouldn’t go north with the team. While spring training numbers don’t matter, the two already looked prepared to test themselves at the major league level late last season. Their performance this spring has only strengthened that opinion.
On Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies, we saw more examples illustrating that the dynamic duo are already among the Tigers’ best hitters. They were down 4-0 entering the bottom of the third inning when Greene and Torkelson put together a pair of high quality at-bats back-to-back, each drawing a walk after a ten pitch battle from Greene, and then an eight pitch battle from Torkelson against reliever Connor Brogdon. That led to the club’s first run of the game.
Go back to Wednesday’s contest with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the fourth inning against major league veteran Jared Eickhoff, Greene quickly got down 1-2 after whiffing at a changeup and then a slider. Yet he didn’t press, taking a pair of pitches for balls before getting a fastball down and in and drilling a hot groundball into the right field corner for a triple. In Greene’s case, just take a look at the amount of hard contact he’s making.
More fun with Riley Greene. He has put 8 balls in play this spring, and his average exit velocity is 95.1 MPH.— Motor City Bengals (@MCB_Tigers) March 26, 2022
It’s just spring training, and it’s just 8 balls in play…but here’s last year’s leaderboard. pic.twitter.com/3Lmw7m1PPy
Meanwhile, Torkelson has been consistently hammering breaking balls and fastballs on the outer third to right field. When they hang something soft over the plate? Rockets to left field have followed. The results, in terms of hits, don’t really matter, but the professionalism of their at-bats, and the regular hard contact tell the tale.
Of course this isn’t surprising. Greene and Torkelson are two of the top five hitting prospects in all of baseball. They just got done torching Double-A and then Triple-A pitching in 2021. Even notoriously conservative projection systems like ZIPS expect them to be slightly above average major leaguers already this year. In another vote of confidence, Miguel Cabrera has lobbied for them both to start the year in the majors, asserting his desire to DH full-time to make room for Torkelson. From the players to the coaches, the whole team knows Greene and Torkelson can help them win this year.
The question is whether the front office will follow through.
In years past, this would’ve been an easy call. The major league season consists of 187 days. If a rookie is on the active roster for 172 days, they earn a full-time year of service time. So teams in recent years have taken to stalling for a few weeks, calling up their rookies only after the cutoff point where they were unable to earn that full year.
If Greene and Torkelson had been ready at the start of last season, the obvious move would have been to hold them down. The team had zero aspirations of competing for a playoff spot. A few weeks of tune-up at Toledo would have been an easy sell. However, under current conditions, and with new incentives to promote rookies on Opening Day, the situation is very different.
First, the Tigers are trying to win. Certainly they aren’t exactly all-in just yet. Their somewhat mediocre payroll makes that obvious. Still, they did make the first substantial free agent signings since 2016 by inking a very good starting pitcher in Eduardo Rodriguez and a talented shortstop in Javier Báez. They have a good amount of young talent and a mix of quality veteran players already on hand. While they aren’t going to be favored to end up in the playoffs, anyone paying close attention knows they have a decent chance of a wild card birth.
The AL Central division will be tough to win with the Chicago White Sox reigning over it, but the other competition doesn’t exactly make for a stacked division. Last year, the Tigers struggled against divisional rivals, but if they can flip the script this year they’ll be in contention. There is clearly an opportunity for the Tigers to at least challenge the White Sox, make a key acquisition or two along the way, and find themselves in the running for one of three wild card berths in the postseason.
There is also the fact that the 2021 season made a pretty good argument for pulling out the stops from the moment Opening Day arrives. The Tigers’ 9-24 start last spring made a comeback almost impossible, but they gave it a good try by playing better than .500 baseball the rest of the way. Had they played something close to .500 ball the first five weeks of the season as well, they would’ve been in position to trade for a piece or two at the trade deadline and take their shot. With the new acquisitions and development from their younger players, it would be quite a disappointment if they didn’t at least compete for a postseason birth for much of the 2022 season.
Finally, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) offers some potential perks. If a team promotes a prospect to the active roster for Opening Day, there will be draft picks awarded should said rookie finish in the top three in Rookie of the Year voting. Even better, those players will be eligible to earn additional picks for their club should they finish in the top five of league Most Valuable Player voting in any of their three pre-arbitration years. While we’re not going to indulge our wildest dream and hope for eight extra picks—when those picks will come in the draft isn’t yet known—both players will be among the favorites for AL Rookie of the Year this season. Whether either player can get in the conversation of best player in the league in a given year, particularly in their first three seasons, remains a longshot.
Here’s one more argument; the fans deserve this. Since 2014’s quick exit from the playoffs, the Tigers have only even sniffed the playoffs once, in 2016. The three seasons preceding 2021 were among the worst in team history. Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson aren’t without flaws, and we shouldn’t expect them to just take the league by storm, but the Tigers’ lineup is clearly going to be better with them installed in it. Were the team to hold the two of them in the minors for a month only to see them make an immediate impact, and then lose out on a playoff spot by a game or two, the blowback would be ugly.
Of course, if there’s one argument that should take precedence over all of this, it’s the question of whether Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson really are as ready as possible. On this score, A.J. Hinch should have the final say. And it’s not as though either one is a lock to have a good rookie year either.
Greene is still vulnerable to right-handers with good changeups, and sometimes works himself into bad counts by being too picky early in an at-bat. His ability to stay alive and still eventually find a pitch he can drive says he’s ready to test his abilities against big league pitching, but obviously further development will be required to thrive there. Torkelson will also take too many hittable fastballs early, and can still be tied up inside with well commanded heat. He also needs to continue to improve defensively in terms of picking balls at first base. Compared to the damage the pair are capable of doing already, these aren’t enough to hold them back, but there are some things worth watching. They may struggle before they find their sea legs against major league pitching.
In the end, the right move is to take them both north on Opening Day. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, they need it, and so does the team. Failing to do so, after everything that’s come before, including the lockout and delay of the season, would not send a great message to a fanbase that has largely hung in there through the teardown and a lot of poor baseball. If either Greene or Torkelson gets into a real funk and needs a tune-up, sending them to Triple-A for a stint to get back in sync will be completely understandable. Just let them prove it on the field, one way or the other.