What Justyn-Henry Malloy’s promotion means for Spencer Torkelson and the Tigers

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Sunday evening, Detroit Tigers prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy shared announcements of his promotion to the major leagues on Instagram. Teammates and coaches also shared and celebrated online.

This promotion has been a long time coming for Malloy, who has a .417 on-base percentage over 838 career plate appearances in Triple A.

As of Sunday night, no corresponding roster moves were official. But the tea leaves are clear: First baseman Spencer Torkelson spent two of the past three games on the bench during the Tigers’ series against the Boston Red Sox. He is expected to be optioned to Triple A.

Earlier Sunday in Boston, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch gave a curious answer regarding whether Torkelson needs a stint in Triple A. “I don’t know,” Hinch said. “We haven’t talked about things like that this morning. We’re trying to find a way to win the game today. That is the No. 1 most important thing.”

The promotion of one prospect, then, comes attached to a discouraging decision on a player the Tigers have been counting on to become a franchise cornerstone. After small signs of encouragement early in May, Torkelson is again mired in a 3-for-37 slump. He is hitting .201 for the season with a .596 OPS.

The reality is Toledo might not serve as an elixir to Torkelson’s struggles. At this point, a demotion would be more about trying to help the major-league team win. Torkelson’s biggest struggle has been timing, and it is an issue that is particularly glaring against fastballs. When facing pitches of 95 mph or higher this season, Torkelson has fouled off 20 pitches, whiffed six times and recorded only four hits on 19 balls in play.

Despite small progress in his load and intent, Torkelson’s swing mechanics have barely changed since his struggles began. Even in the past, we have heard Torkelson talk of trusting his swing. The Tigers, though, would like to see a more pronounced load and a more athletic stance. So far Torkelson has been stubborn in adjusting his swing. For a more meaningful adjustment to happen, might the minor leagues be the place to start?

What we know about Malloy

Malloy received pinch hit at-bats in two of his past three games in Toledo, perhaps a warmup for the Tigers’ platoon-oriented style. Malloy was acquired from the Atlanta Braves in December 2022 along with pitcher Jake Higginbotham in exchange for reliever Joe Jiménez, the first meaningful trade of Scott Harris’ Tigers tenure. Malloy is an intriguing prospect known for his premier plate discipline.

But Malloy’s outfield defense remains below average, and there are reasons the Tigers have yet to call him up despite his .412 on-base percentage in Triple A. He is currently hitting .255 with six home runs. Malloy whiffs on 30.4 percent of swings, and there are concerns major-league pitchers will be able to generate even more in-zone whiffs. That will be the thing to watch with Malloy. How well will he handle elite stuff? Will pitchers beat him in the strike zone?

The Tigers can mix and match Mark Canha, Gio Urshela, Matt Vierling and Andy Ibáñez at first base in Torkelson’s absence. Malloy could see plenty of DH at-bats, but when he plays in the field, how will he fare in the outfield corners?

Malloy is not yet on the Tigers’ 40-man roster, so one player will have to be removed to clear room. One possibility could be moving outfielder Kerry Carpenter to the 60-day injured list. Carpenter went on the IL last week, and over the weekend the team announced he is dealing with a lumbar spine stress fracture. The timeline for his recovery is unclear, but the diagnosis does not seem to bode well for the idea of a quick return. Carpenter’s absence creates a big hole in the lineup and magnifies how valuable he has become.

Although he has only a .575 OPS in 120 plate appearances against left-handed pitching in his career, Carpenter’s .914 OPS against right-handers over the past calendar year is 17th among all MLB hitters.

(Photo: Junfu Han / USA Today)

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