Lakeland, Fla. – There is an easy, unassuming air of confidence about Jake Rogers. Just watching him catch bullpen sessions on the back fields at Tigertown Friday, watching him interact with veteran big-league pitchers, you would never guess that the Tigers' top catching prospect hasn’t played a game above Double-A.
It doesn’t seem forced or contrived, either, this confidence. It seems organic, the natural byproduct of being exceptionally good at every sport you’ve ever played your entire life. It can hit strong, though. At times he can come off as showy, cocky.
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire called him on it last year.
Rogers, one of the big-ticket prospects the Tigers got back from Houston in the Justin Verlander trade, was invited to his first big-league camp last year. In one of the early games, a hitter struck out with a runner on base. Rogers caught the third strike and then, from his knees, flipped the ball nonchalantly back over the hitter’s shoulder.
“It was not pretty, I’ll just put it that way,” Gardenhire said, at the time. “I told him, ‘I know you are a big shooter, but be a better shooter.’ Not mean, just letting him know the basics of what we want to teach here.
“From his knees, with a runner on, over the guy’s shoulder? That’s not going to fly with me. You could hit the bat. You could hit the guy in the head. Don’t embarrass yourself.”
Rogers accepted the message in the spirit it was intended, worked on taking a more meat-and-potatoes approach to his craft and proceeded to cement himself as one of the top defensive catching prospects in the game.
He threw out 50 of 90 would-be base-stealers last season and has thrown out 48.5 percent over his minor-league career.
For the most part, Rogers’ easy confidence is a healthy attribute. And it seems remarkably intact after enduring perhaps the shakiest offensive season -- certainly the worst two-month stretch -- of his life last season.
His slash-line at Double-A Erie last season was an underwhelming .219/.305/.412 with 112 strikeouts in 408 plate appearances. The Tigers’ ‘catcher of the future’ is coming to camp in 2019 in somewhat of a holding pattern.
General manager Al Avila said at the Winter Meetings that the early plan was for Rogers to stay back at Erie, at least for the first part of the season.
Did that surprise him, or upset him, or concern him?
“Wherever they send me, I am going to play,” Rogers said Friday. “My whole thing is, just go play, get ABs, wherever they want to send me. I just want to play. I am excited to get going again.”
But make no mistake, Rogers, who will be 24 years old on April 18, doesn’t expect to stay in Double-A very long.
“In my mind, I’m ready to go,” he said. “Wherever they want to call me – Triple-A, big leagues, whatever. I am ready. I pride myself on making pitchers better and being a good teammate.
“So wherever they put me, I am going to do that.”
Grayson Greiner is coming to spring training as the No. 1 catcher. John Hicks will back him up, as well as spell Miguel Cabrera at first base and get some swings as a DH. Bobby Wilson and Hector Sanchez are set up as veteran insurance policies at Triple-A Toledo.
But this needs to be a move year for Rogers. Avila, when he announced that Rogers would likely start out at Double-A, also said it’s not unprecedented for a player to jump from Double-A to the big leagues with little or no time spent at Triple-A.
There is a path for Rogers. How direct of a path depends on how quickly he acclimates to a new stance and mindset at the plate. Rogers, like JaCoby Jones and several other young pieces of the Tigers’ rebuilding project, are in the process of recalibrating their swing path – from high launch angle back closer to level.
“I’m just trying to get into a more balanced position (at the plate), getting myself to where I can cover more pitches,” he said. “I have to be more balanced. Not so much loading up (on the back leg), just getting to a more athletic position.”
Rogers hit 17 home runs at Erie last season. But 50 percent of the balls he put in play were fly balls and 27.5 percent of his plate appearances ended with a strikeout.
"This is player development, this is part of the process," said Tigers vice president and director of player development David Littlefield. "Every player who has ever fought his way up to the big leagues will tell you, there are potholes along the way and you will struggle at times.
"It's part of what you have to learn to get up here and have success in the big leagues."
Rogers spent a lot of time with minor league hitting coordinators Scott Fletcher and Mike Hessman, both last season and during the offseason (which included 52 plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League), on being more athletic and adaptable at the plate.
Instead of load and launch, the approach is more about squaring it up and putting it in play. But Littlefield was quick to point out, it's not that cut and dry.
"In simple terms, he's got to put the fat part of the bat on the ball more often," Littlefield said. "That will create more hard hits. Talking about balance, that has to do with length of stride, height of stride, timing.
"Being on time, in general terms, is the most important thing, and that ties into balance and bat speed and seeing the ball. All of those things. It's something that is simple to say and hard to do."
Rogers is trying to keep the process as simple, and as visual, as he can.
“I just think of driving the ball,” he said. “If you can drive the ball gap to gap, good things are going to happen. And if you are working on just driving the ball, stuff is going to go out of the park on its own. When you start thinking about getting too big, that’s when stuff starts going down.
“That was a big part of it (last season). Just getting too big. That’s been a lot of the mental work I’ve done. Think about driving the ball gap to gap and try not to get too big.”
Rogers’ overall offensive numbers from last season were greatly influenced by a horrible first two months. After June 2, Rogers slashed .260/.348/.535 with a .883 OPS. The seeds of a turnaround have already been planted and watered.
“It’s just a matter of getting out here, staying persistent, coming to the park every day and playing,” he said. “It was a good year. The end of the year worked out pretty well. It ended up pretty well and that’s what I am working off of.”
The foundation of the Tigers' next title-contending team is expected to be the crop of talented starting pitching prospects currently quick-rising through the system -- Casey Mize, Franklin Perez (another prize from the Verlander trade), Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Matt Manning, Kyle Funkhouser.
The original blueprint of that plan has Rogers penciled in as the catcher. His performance this season, specifically at the plate, could well determine if the Tigers need to modify that blueprint -- either with an eraser or permanent marker.
"This is basically an off-the-charts defender," Littlefield said. "He's a leader and a smart guy. He hit Double-A for the first time at 23 and still hit 17 home runs. And you look at the numbers he put up the last three months. There were a lot of positives.
"Now he's got to learn to play for five months and then for six months, and hopefully, when the playoffs come, for seven months."