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 on 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 out of Vanderbilt. Lacy and Martin were considered candidates to be taken at No. 1 entering the evening.
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. Besides displaying all-fields power during his time at ASU, he also 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 home runs short of tying Horner — Torkelson matched Horner as a No. 1 overall pick. Rick Monday (1965) and Floyd Bannister (1976) were also top picks out of ASU.
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. Although teams rarely select for need in the draft, 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. He’s been compared to Mets first baseman Pete Alonso for his power potential, although he’s more athletic than Alonso.
The last first baseman selected with the No. 1 pick was San Diego high school product Adrian Gonzalez, who 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 also the Marlins scouting director who selected Gonzalez. The only other first baseman selected No. 1 was Ron Blomberg, who 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 announcing the selection. Vanderbilt third baseman Austin Martin and Lacy were the other players viewed as the potential No. 1 pick.
“We can’t tell you who we’re going to pick,” Avila said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday night. “Several things can happen between now and the day you pick.” Without games to watch, teams have had to rely on video and remote interviews with players. Still, the Tigers heavily scouted Torkelson this spring and throughout last year 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 season 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 bonus 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.
The draft was also shortened from 40 rounds to five. Undrafted players can sign with any team for a maximum $20,000 bonus.