Detroit Tigers GM believes in prospects from Justin Verlander trade

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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The opportunities Detroit Tigers catcher Jake Rogers received — or didn’t receive — in 2020 were perplexing.

A key piece from the Houston Astros in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade, the Tigers gave Rogers 35 games in 2019 to get a taste of the big leagues. The thought was that he would make the team out of July’s summer camp and learn from veteran Austin Romine as his backup.

But Rogers — the team’s No. 12 prospect, ranked by MLB Pipeline — didn’t get one day on the active roster. He spent the entire season at the alternate training site in Toledo, watching from afar as Romine, Grayson Greiner and Eric Haase took reps in the majors.

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General manager Al Avila said his decision to do this was calculated. He described Rogers as “everything you could expect” and “really talented” behind the plate in throwing out runners, blocking pitches in the dirt and calling a good game.

“From a defensive perspective, he’s the real deal,” Avila said Friday. “I do have worries about his offense, and I didn’t feel comfortable at the time bringing up him. I felt that it would benefit him more, and the organization, to keep him down there with those at-bats where he’s not going to be scrutinized as much.”

[ Tigers still believe in catcher Jake Rogers. Here’s why ]

Rogers has never finished a minor-league season near a .300 batting average. (His closest was .261 in 2017 in Single-A and High-A.) His 26-for-86 (.302) run in Double-A Erie last year earned him a promotion to Triple-A Toledo, where he logged a .223 average with nine homers and 31 RBIs, giving him a .250 average in the minors.

And when the 25-year-old got his first glimpse of the majors in 2019, he was 14-for-112 (.125) with four home runs and eight RBIs. 

Because of those past shortcomings, Avila didn’t want to stick him in a high-pressure situation amid a shortened season.

“Just because we didn’t bring him up for the last two or three weeks doesn’t mean anything to me,” Avila said. “Because, those at-bats, he could have gone 0-for-20 or hit .400. Those at-bats were not going to determine whether he’s going to do at this point.”

[ Tigers’ prospect Jake Rogers not ready yet in 2020 ]

The Tigers are banking on Rogers’ offense to come around. While that doesn’t mean he needs to hit .300, they want quality at-bats. Avila said the organization is “worried about” the catcher position from an offensive standpoint: this year, Greiner hit .118 in 18 games and Haase only played in seven with a .176 average.

Then there’s Rogers, who is still expected to be the everyday catcher someday.

“We are happy with the defense, but we’d like to have an upgrade on the offensive side,” Avila said. “And we’re hopeful Jake is that guy. … I think he’ll have a chance to make the team out of spring training.”

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Cameron has ‘five tools’

When Avila was asked about pieces of the rebuild he felt confident about, based on the 2020 season, he immediately went to outfielder Daz Cameron, the team’s No. 7 prospect and another piece of the Verlander trade, as an example of development.

Back in 2018, Cameron cruised through the farm system, making his debuts in High-A Lakeland, Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo. Through 53 games in Erie, he hit .285 with five home runs and 35 RBIs.

The Tigers thought they had uncovered a gem. Avila said Cameron nearly made the big-league roster in 2019, but the organization decided to send him back to Toledo.

And he completely fell apart — hitting .214 in 120 games.

“We were all very concerned,” Avila said.

Cameron won a battle with COVID-19 in July, but the virus forced him to quarantine and miss that month’s summer camp. He eventually went to Toledo with the reserve squad.

But Avila got phone calls from the coaching staff there. And more calls. They kept coming from the player development staffers, led by vice president of player development Dave Littlefield.

The message was the same: “We need to give Daz an opportunity because he’s doing very well.” Called up Sept. 9 to replace a struggling Christin Stewart, Cameron struggled through a 1-for-27 (.037) stretch in his first eight games before eventually finding his groove.

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“This guy’s got the five tools,” Avila said. “He can run. He can field. He can throw. And then, at the end there, he showed us that he started to hit and showed us some signs of what he can do. We feel that he’s got what it takes, and he’s got the ability. Hopefully, it’s coming out now.”

Cameron’s final nine games featured a 10-for-30 (.333) surge with two doubles and one triple. He ended the year with a .193 batting average and three RBIs in 17 games.

Castro an ‘everyday guy’

Avila didn’t want to compare Willi Castro and Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, who hit .513 with five homers and 10 RBIs in nine games against the Tigers this year … but Avila basically did.

Because of defense.

Castro’s minus-7 defensive runs saved above average is not good enough to continue as the Tigers’ everyday shortstop. And when Anderson played his first full season in 2017, his minus-22 mark wasn’t good enough, either.

This year, though, Anderson was a plus-3 in 49 games, and that gives Avila hope for Castro.

[ Willi Castro ‘not a fluke.’ Here’s why he can be the answer at SS ]

“I’m not comparing Willi Castro to Tim Anderson because I’m not, but I’m just saying that sometimes there are struggles in the beginning,” Avila said. “You just have to see what the athletic ability is. We feel he has the athletic ability to play anywhere in the infield. At the end of the day, you have to hit. Guys that hit, you find a place for him.”

Offense is something Castro didn’t have a problem with in 2020; Called up Aug. 11, he hit .349 with six home runs and 24 RBIs. He added four doubles and two triples.

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In 30 games last season, Castro had a .230 batting average.

“Offensively speaking, he made tremendous strides, made some adjustments,” Avila said. “… I know in working with Alan Trammell and our minor-league staff, he has made some improvements (on defense). He took a couple of steps backward at the major-league level with some balls that were hit to him.

“But I think, overall, he will be fine. He should be a good everyday guy for us.”

[ Tigers’ 2021 Opening Day prediction: Lots of holes to plug still ]

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content

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