When Scott Harris outlined the Tigers' offseason plans in November, he didn't rule out making a short-term upgrade at first base. Not someone to supplant Spencer Torkelson in the long-term, but "at that position and every position," said Harris, "we're going to look for ways to get better."
They decided the upgrade was already in place.
"We have other options if we need to, but clearly our best team has Spencer Torkelson as a major contributor," A.J. Hinch said Thursday during a stop in Detroit. "We’re looking forward to seeing the adjustments we’ve been able to tweak a little bit and the new relationship with the hitting department."
Torkelson, 23, is meeting with the Tigers' new hitting coaches Thursday in Phoenix, where he lives and trains in the offseason. They comprise a wide range of voices and backgrounds, which Hinch -- and Harris -- hopes is the key to improving the worst offense in the majors last season. Torkelson was one of many culprits, a former No. 1 pick and No. 1 prospect who was so lost in the first half he was eventually sent down to Toledo. He is arguably the most important pupil for Detroit's new hitting department in 2023.
"This isn’t a remake or a rebuild of his swing," said Hinch. "It’s a young player who came up to the big leagues and got his eyes opened to the competition level and some of the difficulties if you don’t make adjustments or if you don’t feel completely comfortable with your stance, your weight distribution, your swing path. You can down so many rabbit holes and get yourself in a really bad mindspace with hitting, so we just wanted him to decompress and get away from the season."
The Tigers were encouraged by the way Torkelson ended 2022. He barreled the ball much more frequently after getting called back up in September, and would have had better numbers to show for it if not for a handful of long, loud outs at Comerica Park -- which won't swallow quite as many hard-hit balls moving forward. Hinch said the Tigers liked where Torkelson left the season in regard to "his demeanor, his body language, his production inside the strike zone and his power."
So to Hinch, the vote of confidence in Torkelson didn't come when the Tigers declined to add a veteran first baseman this winter, someone who might have offered a higher offensive floor in 2023.
"The vote of confidence came in September when we brought him up and played him every day, and he earned that by getting the ball to the pull side in the air a little bit and having more competitive at-bats in the strike zone. His overall confidence grew and that led us to having a ton of confidence in where he was leaving last season," said Hinch.
Torkelson is the Tigers' everyday first baseman as they prepare for 2023. He had to hit his way onto the team in Lakeland last spring. This spring, he would have to hit his way off it. Harris made it clear at the Winter Meetings that the Tigers are "going to invest in our young players" by letting them play. They believe in what Torkelson can do this season with a few adjustments gleaned from a year of experience and honed with the help of a revamped coaching staff.
Between now and the start of spring training, Hinch said the top priority for Torkelson is to get "dialed in with the hitting department." From there, "My expectations are for him to be himself and to bring his best self every day."
"The numbers will speak for themselves as to whether he can stay within that plan, what he can do against elite pitching, how he reacts to an 0-20 versus a 10-20, those are all maturing things that will happen," said Hinch. "Obviously, the results are the results. To me, solidifying his process is going to set up the results to be what they are."
If they're better than what they were, the Tigers will get better at first by staying the same.