Spencer Torkelson and Edouard Julien Optioned to Triple-A

Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is big business and no team is infinitely patient with players who are struggling. While teams won’t generally describe it in such blunt terms, at the beginning of the season, every player has some unknown, invisible amount of leeway when it comes to poor performance. Established role players and fringe starters who just squeezed their way onto the big league roster in March may find themselves in the Pacific Coast or International League come late April or early May as they feel the heat of a poor start. As summer approaches, the names facing demotion become bigger, especially when those players are younger guys who still have minor league options remaining. On Sunday night, two of those bigger names ran out of rope, at least for now: Spencer Torkelson and Edouard Julien are headed to Triple-A to play for smaller crowds in smaller towns.

Before we examine what this pair of demotions means, I thought I’d put some numbers to the broader phenomena. I looked at the preseason ZiPS projections for players optioned during the season over the last 10 years. In nine of the 10 seasons, June was the month in which the players with the most combined projected WAR were sent to the minors. That holds true on a rate basis as well, with 0.75 projected WAR per June demoted player the highest monthly average. Naturally, demoted players tend to be worse performers than those who keep their jobs. To use last year as an example, of the 1,091 demotions, only 19 involved players projected for at least 2 WAR. Just one such player, Brayan Bello, was optioned in April, but starting on May 10 with Jose Miranda, bigger demotions started populating the list, with Miranda, David Villar, Oswald Peraza, Brandon Pfaadt, Alek Manoah, Josh Rojas, and Luis Urías all hitting the minors from mid-May through the end of June. Only four two-win players were demoted in July, with Manoah’s second demotion on August 11 the final one.

The usual pattern has held this year. Only a single player project for 2 WAR was optioned in April (Jackson Holliday), but in the last week, six other players — in chronological order, James Outman, Bryce Elder, Jack Suwinski, Reid Detmers, and now Torkelson and Julien — have joined the list.

Neither Torkelson nor Julien were fringe players with projections that looked too bullish – rather, they were two players who were expected to play key roles on playoff-relevant teams. Still, in my eyes, Torkelson’s demotion was easily the more justified of the two. Formerly a top prospect, the Tigers first baseman lost much of that sheen after a brutal 2022. Last season didn’t start much better, but his Statcast numbers were rock-solid and the team’s patience appeared to be paying off when he put up an .855 OPS with 16 homers in August and September, a performance more in line with those measures. Batting order doesn’t mean much in terms of how many runs a team will score, but where a player hits does reflect a team’s confidence in him, and Torkelson spent most of this April hitting second, third, or fourth in Detroit’s lineup. But he didn’t hit his first home run until the second week of May, and his line didn’t look that different from that rough 2022 season.

No player bombs a team single-handedly, but Detroit had genuine reason to hope that the offense was on the upswing, with Torkelson and Riley Greene better established, Colt Keith in the lineup, and veterans like Gio Urshela and Mark Canha there to keep the lows from getting too low. Detroit has hung around .500 despite the offense ranking 24th in baseball (95 wRC+) on the strength of their front-end pitching. While that be enough to keep a team competitive in the Central most years, the Guardians have won nearly two-thirds of their games, and both the Twins and (more surprisingly) the Royals have decent cushions on the Tigers. Sure, Detroit is lapping the White Sox, but that’s no more satisfying in 2024 than beating your five-year-old nephew at arm wrestling.

Unlike last year, there’s no happy underlying Statcast story that predicts a hot second half for Torkelson. A slugger with a hard-hit rate under 40% and a barrel rate under 5% can hardly be considered much of a slugger at all. How brutal are his overall Statcast numbers? Based on the Statcast data, ZiPS thinks that Torkelson should be hitting .203/.278/.292 this season, which is somehow even bleaker than his actual .201/.266/.330 line. Like every movie based on a video game in the 1990s, Torkelson has earned his awfulness on merit this year. It’s difficult to be a good power hitter if you can’t hit a fastball, and Tork’s hitting .179 and slugging .292 against the hard stuff. If the “what” is easy, the why is harder. Torkelson’s bat speed remains in the 80th percentile, while his plate discipline numbers are essentially unchanged. The seeds of his struggles might be found a little deeper: a significant drop in his sweet spot rate (six percentage points), leading to more sad popups and lazy flies.

The Tigers will give Torkelson every chance to show he can still be a big part of the team’s plans, but he’ll do so as a Mud Hen for now. The updated ZiPS projections show Torkelson losing about 0.7 WAR a year since the start of 2024:

ZiPS Projection – Spencer Torkelson
2025 .236 .315 .444 576 86 136 34 1 28 84 61 151 2 110 -2 2.0
2026 .238 .318 .446 576 87 137 34 1 28 86 63 147 2 112 -2 2.1
2027 .243 .324 .454 573 88 139 35 1 28 86 64 143 2 116 -2 2.4
2028 .241 .324 .449 564 86 136 34 1 27 84 64 139 2 114 -3 2.2
2029 .241 .325 .446 551 84 133 33 1 26 81 63 135 2 114 -3 2.1

That’s a drop-off from a projected 124 OPS+ in 2025 to a 110. While he still forecasts to be a real major leaguer again, there’s little margin for error, and stardom feels a lot more elusive than it did just two months ago.

We now come to the Edouard Julien portion of the proceedings, and I’m far more grumbly here than I was about Torkelson. And I’m not just saying that because my colleague Davy Andrews’ little Julien earworm is the third-most listened to baseball-related song in my music library, behind Belle and Sebastian’s Piazza, New York Catcher and Jonathan Coulton’s Kenesaw Mountain Landis. At .207/.309/.367, Julien certainly isn’t matching his .263/.381/.459 line from last year, but then, nobody projected him to match his rookie line. With the drop-off on offense, that line amounts to a 99 wRC+, quite respectable for a second baseman. Among the 27 players this year to get 100 PA while playing second base, Julien is right in the middle of the pack in terms of WAR, at 13th of the 27. He’s also improved defensively at second, with a +4 OAA there through two months.

Unlike Torkelson, ZiPS sees Julien’s Statcast data implying better results than his actual line so far, with a zOPS of .717 compared to his actual .676. His defensive improvement — ZiPS was very skeptical about him at second — actually balances out the slight decline in his offensive outlook, and as a result, he’s still projected for the same 2025 WAR as he was back in March:

ZiPS Projection – Edouard Julien
2025 .234 .353 .382 482 71 113 24 1 15 65 84 174 10 106 0 3.3
2026 .234 .353 .387 491 73 115 25 1 16 67 86 172 10 107 0 3.5
2027 .233 .353 .385 493 73 115 25 1 16 67 87 169 9 107 0 3.5
2028 .229 .350 .380 489 72 112 24 1 16 65 87 166 8 105 -1 3.3
2029 .227 .346 .374 481 69 109 24 1 15 63 84 162 7 103 -1 3.0

No, Julien isn’t likely to ever hit for a high batting average, but this is a league hitting .240, not the .270 league of the late 90s. That’s a very good projection and a player you want in the lineup, not riding buses to medium-sized cities in June.

In other words, Julien wasn’t demoted for being one of the worst players in baseball this year, but for merely being a league-average second baseman. Julien has struggled lately, but “previous month” is an extremely poor projection system. And yes, the returning Royce Lewis plays the infield and the team’s role players are largely veterans without options remaining. But I don’t find that to be a compelling argument for demoting Julien, and it’s extremely conservative behavior for a team looking up at two teams in the divisional standings. If you’re unimpressed by Julien’s 99 wRC+ this year, well, the team’s current starting first baseman, Carlos Santana, has hit worse than that for going on five years, with a wRC+ of 94 since the start of 2020. Santana is also 38 and has next to no defensive value. Kyle Farmer’s been struggling to keep his OPS above .500, and Manuel Margot has hit .209/.274/.264 coming off an uninspiring role last year as a spare outfielder. None of these players are part of Minnesota’s future, and they haven’t done much for the present, either.

“But Dan, they all have big contracts!” So? You have to pay them no matter what, so all that really matters is whether they help you win baseball games or not. Just because you paid $15 for the cheeseburger you fumbled into a muddy puddle on the street doesn’t mean you’re compelled to finish it. The Twins ought to prefer paying Santana $3.5 million to go fishing or play golf or hit cleanup for the Marlins, and the same goes for Farmer and Margot. Julien may not match his 2023 production, but he’s the player who gives the Twins the best chance of catching up to the Royals and Guardians, and he’ll be playing for the St. Paul Saints for at least the next week or two.

The AL Central race probably doesn’t hinge on whether or not Julien starts for a few weeks in June, but it’s an extremely disappointing decision. For now, Willi Castro will probably get the most starts at second, but it feels like with a bit more imagination, the Twins could have kept Julien, found playing time for both Castro and Miranda, and left the team with a lineup that had more upside.

Perhaps it’s June, not April, that is the cruelest month, at least in baseball.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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17 days ago

Watching the Tigers offense these last several years has been an exercise in endless disappointment. Even some of my extended family who know nothing about WAR or Statcast and the like seem resigned to considering Tork a bust, which was not true at the end of last year at all.

If only we could graft 4 more arms to Skubal so he could make every pitching start.

17 days ago

I think we have to look at the coaching staff. The one thing I think we all could agree upon is that when the season started, Tork could hit a fastball. Suddenly, at the age of 24, he can’t?

If there is something off with his swing the major league hitting coach should be able to fix it. If the coach in Toledo is able to find the adjustments, then the coach at the top is the wrong guy.

Hey, at least Hinch isn’t hitting Baez in the middle of the line-up anymore, lol.

17 days ago
Reply to  tigerfannky

Pirates fans have been saying the same stuff about Henry Davis, Jack Suwinski and Oneil Cruz and the hitting coach.

15 days ago

Where is the poster now that posted awhile back that Carpenter, Torkelson, and Greene would combine to hit 150 HR this year?