Hits, misses, happenings, and adventures from a week of baseball across the Tigers farm galaxy:
Torkelson breaks loose
This was about to happen, of course, this blossoming of last year’s first overall draft prodigy into a hitter who might endanger a light-tower or two as he eases into his first full season or professional baseball.
Torkelson spent the first five days of last week in close touch with the Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps training staff. Torkelson, who is 21 and still ostensibly a third baseman, had a mildly strained hamstring and the Tigers medical staff, understanding the word “hamstring” is right there with “IRS officials wish to speak with you about your tax returns” in producing anxiety, backed away from him for four consecutive games.
Torkelson re-emerged Saturday and did most of the detonation in a 17-5 obliteration of Lake County. After smashing a single off the shortstop’s glove in the fourth inning, Torkelson walloped a three-run homer far beyond the left-center field fence at LMCU Ballpark, then later cracked another three-run bomb — this against the scoreboard — as part of a 15-hit outburst by the Whitecaps.
Never mind that Torkelson’s second blast came against a catcher, Gianpaul Gonzalez, who was ordered to the mound as Lake City ran out of conventional pitching arms. Torkelson is showing that his right-handed bat is warming in tandem with spring’s temps.
Following a traumatic March at Tigers camp that extended into his move to West Michigan, Torkelson had in fact been heating up before the hamstring flared, chopping down on strikeouts and making better contact.
He entered Sunday with an .801 OPS and with surer signs that he’s about to become the lineup force for which the Tigers happily paid $8 million-plus 10 months ago.
Kody Clemens, not forgotten
His game totals for 2021 heading into Sunday were concise: one. One game at Triple-A Toledo is all Kody Clemens had played through the minor-league calendar’s first month.
The reason? Clemens strained his left (non-throwing) forearm diving for a ball on opening day and only Sunday returned to a Tigers lineup, albeit not Toledo’s.
Clemens made a rehab start at Single-A Lakeland and was 0-for-4 with a strikeout, serving as the team’s designated hitter. If all goes well, he’ll rejoin the Mud Hens next weekend, at which point the Tigers will begin to more definitively know if they have a second baseman in store someday soon for Detroit, or a third-round draft pick who came close but didn’t quite crack the big-league threshold.
Clemens, a left-handed hitter with a tablespoon of Tabasco in his makeup, turned 25 two weeks ago and will re-emerge as a serious Tigers roster piece — if he hits at Toledo. The Tigers still aren’t sure how they’ll sort out the Isaac Paredes-Clemens jam-up at second base, which won’t be a jam-up if Paredes — or Clemens — can be deployed elsewhere.
Both need to first show they can hit, which is what these next weeks and months of Toledo will help confirm, either way.
Yeah, yeah, Ya Ya can pitch
His given name is Yasin Chentouf, but he — this seems as if it was teed up all the way — goes by the name Yaya Chentouf.
And if you are playing against the West Michigan Whitecaps in the late innings and he arrives on the pitching mound, you are in for a tussle.
Chentouf, 23, is a right-handed reliever who is all of 5-foot-9 and weighs 205 pounds. He was a 36th-round draft pick in 2018, from the University of Pittsburgh, and was a one-time outfielder before pitching became his single vocation.
Chentouf has pitched in nine games for the Whitecaps, and has behaved rather well, indeed: 13⅔ innings, seven hits, five walks, 15 strikeouts, 0.66 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, .156 opposing batting average.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Whitecaps pitching coach Willie Blair said. “We’ve cleaned up his delivery — he used to throw way across his body and now he’s more in line with his target — and his velocity has picked up. He’s been up to 98.
“He’s a smaller guy, but also one of the better fielders I’ve ever had. He knows how to hold runners, he can be quicker to the plate when he needs to be, he can sink the ball or let one ride at the top of the zone. His slider’s also been pretty good — much more consistent than when I had him in 2019.”
Chentouf was a closer at Pitt but is working one- and two-inning shifts for the Whitecaps as they settle roles. He also is from Dr. Phillips High in Orlando, Florida — the same high school that sent Johnny Damon to the big leagues.
Elvin Rodriguez’s hot start, explained
He has started four games for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves. He has a 1.40 ERA, an .0.78 WHIP, with a .123 opposing batting average, augmented by 23 strikeouts in 19⅓ innings, and offset by seven walks and eight hits.
Elvin Rodriguez turned 23 only two months ago, so the Tigers are free to think big — to imagine that Rodriguez, a right-handed pitcher from San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, might be easing toward potential duty in Detroit.
No one’s sure about that scenario — even if the Tigers are doubly tempted to hope things work out, all because they would love something tangible to show for their 2017 deal that brought Rodriguez to the Tigers and sent Justin Upton to the Angels.
Rodriguez is 6-3, 160, and flings his fastball in the 91-93 range. The difference in May, if you listen to Erie manager Arnie Beyeler, has been Rodriguez throwing more first-pitch strikes, which in turn has made an improved curveball a bit rougher on hitters.
“It’s a ball in the dirt that’s got some depth to it,” said Beyeler, who says Rodriguez has been working incessantly with SeaWolves pitching coach Mark Johnson to put more bite on his breaking ball. “That curveball is a pitch that works now. It’s becoming a weapon for him.”
The Tigers will, of course, wait and see on Rodriguez. But Tigers big-league scouts always liked Rodriguez when they helped make him a player-to-be-named later in the Upton contract-download that was at the heart of a trade in 2017.
Short stops …
… Derek Hill was on an 18-for-38 run midway through the weekend and making a bid to displace either Nomar Mazara, or perhaps Victor Reyes, as the Tigers work on their version of outfield offense. Daz Cameron, too, has been heating up (three hits Saturday) and is making future roster configurations increasingly interesting.
… Ryan Kreidler has four home runs for the SeaWolves — and they are not to be sneezed at. Kreidler, a shortstop, and fourth-rou nd pick (UCLA) in 2019, is viewed by the Tigers as a player who definitely will proceed to the big leagues, with his bat determining whether he makes it as a regular or as a back-up. His power is one factor, as it is a product of being 6-4, 208. Kreidler is 23.
… Do not look beyond the horizon and fail to see right-handed reliever Ethan DeCaster’s possibly flinging pitches in Detroit. DeCaster, an 18th-round pick from Duke in 2018, has done nothing but pitch well since the Tigers signed him, making it to Triple A in 2019.
He began the spring with Erie and is busting for promotion: seven games, 9⅓ innings, four hits, no runs, 12 strikeouts — and, ouch, seven walks. Control hasn’t been a past issue and isn’t expected to loom as a deal-breaker in the days ahead.
Single-A West Michigan
… Daniel Cabrera had three hits Friday, followed up with three hits Saturday, then added three more Sunday as the Tigers’ third draft pick from 2021 began acting more in keeping with his reputation as a big-league-bound, left-handed hitter.
… Dillon Dingler’s five home runs and artistry behind home plate are all the more reason why the Tigers aren’t overly interested in University of Louisville catcher Henry Davis, who is the best college hitter in the 2021 draft.
Dingler has been sending the Tigers unmistakable signals that he’ll be their next regular catcher — aided by a probable Double-A promotion, soon.
… Tigers have a nice up-the-middle infield combo brewing at Lakeland in Wenceel Perez at second base and Gage Workman, last year’s fourth-round pick from Arizona State, enjoying his new life at shortstop.
Workman, 21, is a switch-hitter who arrived for Sunday’s game carrying an .837 OPS (two home runs, two triples, nine doubles, all factoring). Perez, 21, and also a switch-hitter, was batting .293.
Workman moved to shortstop from his old third-base perch at ASU, ironically so his old Sun Devils teammate, Torkelson, could swing to third base from first.
It’s an arrangement with plenty of potential outcomes, but an experimentation the Tigers, for now, rather like.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.
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