After 'tough' 2020, Tigers' Jake Rogers looking forward to AJ Hinch's tutelage
Detroit — Being managed by a former catcher can be rather hellish for a catcher.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Tigers skipper and former big-league catcher AJ Hinch said last month. “The blessing is, we have a lot of expertise and a lot of feel for the position. The bad news is we have a lot of expertise and feel for the position.”
Blessing and a curse? Jake Rogers says bring it on.
“It’s going to be great, him being a catcher,” said Rogers, the Tigers top catching prospect who will be competing with recently-signed veteran Wilson Ramos and Grayson Greiner this spring. “He’s going to be hard on me and I wouldn’t expect anything less.
“He’s going to be hard on me and I’m probably going to enjoy it a little too much. I hope he gets on me a little bit. That’s how you learn.”
There probably isn’t a whole lot Hinch can do to make things harder on Rogers than they’ve been the last couple of years. Rogers was acquired from Houston in the Justin Verlander trade, got called up to the big leagues before he was ready in 2019, struggled mightily both at the plate (51 strikeouts in a 128 plate appearances) and behind the plate (nine passed balls) — and that was just a precursor to 2020.
“It was tough,” Rogers said during a Zoom call Wednesday. “What I learned most was, things are out of your control. I always harp on that but it really is — you can’t control what you can’t control.”
Like a global pandemic. Like baseball shutting down with two weeks left in spring training. Like the Tigers being so repentant about sending him into the fire too soon in 2019 they decided not to call him up at all last season.
Rogers, trying to adapt to a major swing change, spent 2½ months playing intrasquad games at the alternate site in Toledo. He wasn’t even called up to the taxi squad. Sub-optimal year of development.
“It was definitely weird,” he said. “I’d much rather be playing against other teams or in the big leagues. But it was what it was. I was down there getting work. We were all down there having fun playing baseball. It was better than sitting at home not doing anything.
“It wasn’t a wasted year, but I’d rather be playing against teams.”
Rogers, to his credit, never felt like he was being pushed out of the club’s plans. He never complained publicly, nor did he sulk while he was in Toledo.
“As long as you are being yourself, whatever happens is going to happen,” Rogers said. “As long as you are going out there and working hard, things will either happen for you or they won’t. No one wanted to have intrasquad games every day in Toledo. It was definitely tough. But we made the most of it.”
After the season, general manager Al Avila and later Hinch both made it clear Rogers was still very much in the plans for 2021.
“Jake is going to have an opportunity to make an impression,” Hinch had said. “His tools are really good.”
On Tuesday morning, Hinch told reporters on a Zoom call that he’d be OK with going into spring with Greiner and Rogers, but he’d hoped the club could add another veteran catcher.
“The more the merrier,” he said.
A few hours later, the Tigers had agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with 33-year-old, two-time All-Star Ramos.
But again, if that news deflated Rogers even a little bit, he didn’t show it. He spent Tuesday in Dallas hitting under the studious gaze of new Tigers hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh.
“That is out of my control,” he said. “Whoever they sign, whoever the decide to bring up, I’ve just got to be me. Hopefully I can make a name for myself and earn a job. But I definitely have to earn it. It’s not going to be given to me.”
The thing is, before the shutdown last spring, Rogers was swinging the bat well. He went 3 for 7 with a pair of home runs in five games. He’d worked the previous winter with California-based hitting instructor Doug Latta, recalibrating his set-up and swing plane, reducing his leg kick and his launch angle.
Joe Vavra, Tigers hitting coach in 2020, maintained Latta’s program with Rogers and Mike Hessman worked with him at Toledo. Rogers already has trained with Latta this offseason, too.
“Actually I’m feeling better than ever,” he said. “I’m working out four and five days a week, hitting on the field. Everything feels normal. If we started in a couple of weeks, I’d be ready. Next week even.”
It’s tempting to see this as a make-or-break spring for Rogers. He’s entering his age-26 season, which means he's about out of the prospect pool. But it doesn’t appear the Tigers are looking at it that way. They signed the veteran Ramos for just one year. Second-round pick Dillon Dingler is still at least two years away from making a serious push.
And if the Tigers learned anything from the James McCann saga, it’s that catchers tend to take longer to develop than most other position players. McCann found his stride in his age-29 season, after five seasons in Detroit.
By all accounts, the Tigers hope Rogers will hit well enough to spend most if not all of 2021 in the big leagues, sharing the catching load with Ramos. If that doesn’t happen, another 400 or so competitive at-bats at Triple-A Toledo wouldn’t be the worst thing for him after what he went through last year.
“Going into spring training, I know I’ve got to earn it,” Rogers said. “It’ll all work itself out. Just have to keep my nose to the grindstone and keep going.”