San Diego — Tigers general manager Al Avila might've been starting to feel squeezed toward the end of the Winter Meetings.
Without debate, at the top of his to-do list was adding a veteran catcher. He couldn't very well go into spring with two young catchers again, like he did last year. And even before the meetings began, catchers were flying off the board.
He was outbid by the Twins for his own son, Alex Avila, who got a $4.25 million deal. Travis d'Arnaud and Robinson Chirinos, two catchers they made calls on, were signed by the Braves and Rangers, respectively.
And with others like Martin Maldonado and Jason Castro drawing interest from contending teams, the Tigers' list was shrinking.
But, Thursday morning, as clubs were checking out of the hotel, the Tigers got their catcher. They agreed to terms on a one-year, $4.1 million contract with former Yankees backup Austin Romine, a league source told The Detroit News. The source requested anonymity because the contract has not been signed.
Fans may remember Romine from his pushing match with Miguel Cabrera in 2017, which triggered a bench-clearing brawl. But there's more to him than that.
He's 31, played on the same high school team (El Toro in Lake Forest, Calif.) as Rockies star Nolan Arenado and played parts of eight seasons with the Yankees.
After overcoming injuries early in his career (bulging discs in his back and concussions) he served as the primary backup to Gary Sanchez the last three. He hit .281 in 72 games last year, with a .310 on-base percentage and .748 OPS. In 149 games the last two seasons, he's produced 18 home runs and 77 RBIs.
He’s been a solid defensive catcher, posting a plus-6 defensive runs saved in 2018 and a plus-1 last year, when he threw out 10 of 33 base runners. For his career, he’s thrown out 23 percent of would-be base stealers.
He and Grayson Greiner will compete for the catching job in spring training, both are right-handed hitters.
Which begs the question: What's in store for the Tigers top catching prospect Jake Rogers? The short answer is, he will start the season at Triple-A Toledo and possibly, depending on his performance, spend most of the year there.
"We need to be patient." Avila said Wednesday night. "Let's make sure we give guys time to develop. One of the things that's really heavy on my mind is bringing up Jake Rogers when we did last year."
Rogers was called up on July 30 when Greiner was on the injured list and veteran Bobby Wilson was hitting under .100. His struggle at the big-league level was profound. He hit just .125, striking out 51 times in 128 plate appearances.
He also had nine passed balls in 35 games.
"There were a lot of people that just said, 'Bring up Jake Rogers,'" Avila said. "Well, is it right? We should've just left him there (in Toledo). That was not good."
Rogers, along with pitcher Franklin Perez and outfielder Daz Cameron, were the get-backs in the trade that sent Justin Verlander to Houston and Avila made it clear nobody is giving up on him.
"We are looking to get better in 2020 without trying to crush a young kid," he said. "He's going to have the opportunity to play, but it's not going to be handed to him."
Avila said it's not unusual for a player to falter in his first stint in the big leagues. He cited two players -- Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer -- who got their careers back on track after being sent back to Triple-A for a stretch.
"We brought him up out of necessity and going back, most people felt he could handle it," Avila said. "Young guys sometimes can get overwhelmed and quite frankly, I think it affected his catching.
"As a catcher, you can't let that happen. You can't let your hitting affect your catching. We will give him time to figure it out."
Greiner struggled mightily out of the game last season, but the Tigers were encouraged with how he finished. He was hitting just .161 with 57 strikeouts in 43 games on June 13 when he was shut down with a back injury.
He came back in September and hit .321 in the final 15 games.
"We're going to give equal opportunity and the competition is going to be real," Avila said. "Guys have to start stepping up and performing. That's the only way you're going to get better.
"Otherwise you are just spinning your wheels. We've come to that point, now."