Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson made history when the Detroit Tigers selected him with the first pick in the 2020 MLB draft on Wednesday, making him the first college first baseman and the first right-handed-hitting first baseman ever selected with the first overall pick.
Torkelson played first base at Arizona State, but the Tigers announced him as a third baseman, and he has shown enough athleticism to convince some that he could stick at third base, despite never playing the position in college.
“We know he can play first, but our scouts strongly feel that he can play third base, and that’s our intent at this point,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said during ESPN’s draft broadcast. “He’s exactly the type of player we hoped would be there with the first pick. At this point, we’re going to send him out as a third baseman.”
Torkelson said he played all over the field during his youth, adding that he has no problem with transitioning to third base.
“It’s not a shock to me. I prided myself as a baseball player, and a baseball player isn’t stuck at one position,” Torkelson said on ESPN. “… You’re playing all over the place [as a kid], and that’s what I pride myself on. I pride myself on winning and getting the job done, and if that’s at third base, that’s what it is. I’ll do my best over there and make it happen.”
The Baltimore Orioles took outfielder Heston Kjerstad from the University of Arkansas with the second pick. Kjerstad, 21, hit .448/.513/.791 (30-for-67) with five doubles, six home runs, 19 runs and 20 RBIs in 16 games during his junior season, which was shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Miami Marlins took right-hander Max Meyer from the University of Minnesota with the third pick. Meyer began his college career in the bullpen before moving into the starting rotation.
The Kansas City Royals selected left-handed pitcher Asa Lacy of Texas A&M with the fourth pick. With the fifth pick, the Toronto Blue Jays selected shortstop Austin Martin of Vanderbilt. Lacy and Martin were considered candidates to be taken at No. 1 entering the evening.
Seattle chose University of Georgia righty Emerson Hancock sixth, and Pittsburgh picked New Mexico State shortstop Nick Gonzales seventh, making it a record seven consecutive college players selected to start a draft.
Tennessee high school outfielder Robert Hassell ended the run on college players, going No. 8 to San Diego. That’s the latest the first prep player has been taken in a draft, surpassing Clayton Kershaw going to the Dodgers at No. 7 in 2006.
“We’ve seen the trend in this direction over the last number of years,” Milwaukee scouting director Tod Johnson said after the Brewers took UCLA outfielder Garrett Mitchell at No. 20. “Those three years of development that players get when they go to college tells us a lot about them. It helps to make these decisions with more information. We have more of a statistical record for college players against quality competition.
“All those factors, I think, have trended toward moving toward a more college-heavy draft.”
The Tigers’ selection of Torkelson marked the second straight year that a college position player was taken with the first pick. It’s the first time that has happened since Milwaukee took North Carolina catcher B.J. Surhoff in 1985 and Pittsburgh selected Arkansas third baseman Jeff King a year later.
One of the most prodigious sluggers in NCAA history, Torkelson led Division I with 25 home runs as a freshman in 2018 and followed that with 23 homers as a sophomore. He was off to a great start in 2020, hitting .340/.598/.780 with six home runs in 17 games, before the coronavirus pandemic shut down college and high school seasons across the country, making this draft class difficult for scouting staffs to evaluate.
Torkelson, however, was viewed as the safest pick in this draft. Beside displaying all-fields power during his time at ASU, he mashed while using a wood bat in two summers playing for Team USA. Scouts love his approach and plate discipline, and he’s an above-average defender at first who could play left field if needed. Although he didn’t get a chance to break Bob Horner’s school record for home runs — he fell four short of tying Horner — Torkelson matched Horner as a No. 1 pick. Rick Monday (1965) and Floyd Bannister (1976) were also top picks out of Arizona State.
“He’s one of the most polished hitters we’ve seen in the draft for quite some time, showing plus-plus power and excellent plate discipline,” Tigers director of amateur scouting Scott Pleis said in a statement. “We’ve been tracking Spencer’s growth and performance since his breakout freshman season at Arizona State, and are excited to see him grow in the coming years.”
Torkelson was undrafted out of high school in 2017.
“It was tough for me. I watched all three days of the draft in 2017 and saw a lot of names of guys I played against get drafted,” Torkelson told MLB Network before the draft. “It hurt. It kind of lit a fire inside me, and I said, ‘I’m not going to feel this again,’ and coming junior year at ASU, I’m going to be a first-rounder. I told myself that.”
Torkelson started improving even before his freshman season officially started.
“When you get to college baseball, it becomes a full-time job. A lot of people say that, and I believe it’s true,” he said. “Starting freshman fall, you’re in that weight room five days a week, practicing six days a week, so you’re grinding. … I really noticed everything clicking about November of my freshman fall. It felt good. I was feeling strong. I got a little chest and abs. You get confident. You get in the batting cage, and you’re hitting the ball even harder.”
This was the second time in three years that the Tigers had the No. 1 overall pick; they selected Auburn right-hander Casey Mize in 2018. The Tigers have Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal as top-rated pitching prospects all on the brink of reaching the majors. Torkelson fits a glaring need for power in the organization, as the big league club ranked last in the American League in runs and home runs in 2019. Torkelson has been compared to Mets first baseman Pete Alonso for his power potential, though he’s more athletic than Alonso.
The most recent first baseman selected with the No. 1 pick was San Diego high school product Adrian Gonzalez, whom the Marlins drafted in 2000. The Marlins traded him as a minor leaguer, but Gonzalez went on to a 15-year career in the majors, making five All-Star teams and hitting 317 home runs. Avila was the Marlins’ scouting director who selected Gonzalez. The only other first baseman selected No. 1 was Ron Blomberg, whom the Yankees took in 1967. Blomberg gained fame as the first player in major league history to bat as a designated hitter. He hit .293 with 52 home runs in an injury-shortened career.
Torkelson watched the draft from his home in California. The Tigers remained quiet on their preference until they announced the selection.
Without games to watch, teams had to rely on video and remote interviews with players. Still, the Tigers heavily scouted Torkelson last year and this spring and ran all their information and analysis through their internal database.
“Once baseball stopped, the data stopped and the looks stopped,” Avila said. “We already had the information loaded up. All we needed to do then is start having our meetings and loading it up and making adjustments and coming up with our list.”
Torkelson’s advisor is Scott Boras, and his slot value as the first pick is $8,415,300. Adley Rutschman, the first overall pick last year by the Orioles out of Oregon State, signed for an $8.1 million bonus. Due to the economic fallout from COVID-19, teams will defer bonus payments. Drafted players will receive up to $100,000 of their bonuses within 30 days of signing, with 50% of the remaining money paid out on July 1, 2021, and the remaining 50% on July 1, 2022.
Rounds 2-5 of the MLB draft will be held Thursday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2). A total of 160 players will be selected.
Undrafted players will need to wait until Sunday before they can sign with major league teams, who can offer signing bonuses up to $20,000, as agreed upon by Major League Baseball and the players’ association. That could prompt many players to instead go back to school or junior college and be eligible for the draft again next year, when big league teams can cap it at 20 rounds if they choose.
Houston will have to wait a while before it makes its first picks after being stripped of its first- and second-round selections by commissioner Rob Manfred as part of the team’s punishment for breaking rules against using electronics to steal signs during games. The Astros get started with pick No. 72, which they received as compensation for the loss of pitcher Gerrit Cole, who signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees.
Boston lost its second-round pick for violating rules against in-game use of video to identify pitch signals.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.