What AJ Hinch wants to see in the Detroit Tigers’ young catchers

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch called a meeting with his catchers after Wednesday’s first pitcher-catcher workout of spring training. He told them to sit down at an outside picnic table near the facility building.

Then, Hinch addressed the elephant in the room.

“You got Wilson Ramos, and then you got a bunch of guys that are competing for the same job,” Hinch said Wednesday. “What each guy has to do is a little bit different.”

The Tigers signed Ramos to a one-year, $2 million contract this winter, so he is locked in as the Opening Day starter. But four other catchers — Grayson Greiner, Jake Rogers, Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase — are battling for the backup role.

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Greiner and Rogers are on the 40-man roster, meaning they should have a slight advantage. Still, all four catchers have MLB experience, with lackluster offensive performances, and are decent or solid defenders.

May the best bat win?

“I mean, it’s no secret,” Greiner said. “I’ve struggled the last couple of years offensively. I kept working on the defensive stuff, but I’m really trying to make strides as an offensive player, controlling the strike zone a little better, some swing adjustments.”

Greiner, 28, went 6-for-51 (.118) with three homers and eight RBIs through 18 games last year, with three walks and 20 strikeouts, as the backup. He was optioned to the alternate training site in Toledo midway through September.

He has a .194 batting average in 106 games during parts of three seasons.

“Swinging at balls and taking strikes, that’s not a good recipe for success,” Greiner said. “A lot of it is approach-driven. When I was hitting the ball, I would hit it hard. But I just wasn’t hitting the ball enough.”

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Rogers, 25, is ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Tigers’ No. 12 prospect, but he hit .125 with four homers and eight RBIs in 35 games in 2019. He didn’t return to the majors in 2020.

Tigers general manager Al Avila isn’t sure what scenario is best for Rogers to begin the upcoming season: backup in MLB or starter in Triple-A Toledo. To earn the backup role, he must improve his hitting.

“Depending on what we see in spring training, that will be a question that we probably meet on a few times throughout the spring on what to do there,” Avila said Tuesday. “A lot of that has to do with his progression. That will be a discussion we’ll have throughout the spring, probably even after the season starts.”

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Garneau, 33, appeared in 17 games for the Houston Astros in 2020. He went 6-for-38 (.158) with one homer and four RBIs. He has 140 games in the majors across parts of six seasons with five teams.

And Haase, 28, played seven games for the Tigers last year, going 3-for-17 (.176) with one walk and six strikeouts. Through parts of three MLB seasons, he is a career .122 hitter in 26 games.

Hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and  the catchers in camp discussed their approach. He wants them to shorten their swings and come up with a plan for when they step in the batter’s box.

“I’ve heard my whole life that baseball is 90% mental, and I’m starting to realize that’s 100% true,” Greiner said. “If you have a plan, you have an approach when you go up there, your chances of success grow exponentially.”

The newest member of the catching crew is Ramos. The 33-year-old played 45 games for the New York Mets in 2020. He hit .239 with five home runs and 15 RBIs. In 2019, he registered a .288 batting average, 14 homers and 73 RBIs in 141 games.

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Offensive improvement is one aspect of the competition for the backup gig. The other, Hinch said, is developing the young arms and staying on the same page with the veterans.

“We want him to be a complete player,” Hinch said about Greiner, “but he’s got to continue to show (he can) guide that pitching staff, (where) the day that he pitches, we’re going to win. That’s what I think is important. If you’re a winning player, that’s the ultimate compliment.”

Greiner is hungry for a spot in the majors this season, and unless Rogers gets into a groove at the plate during spring training games, Greiner will likely be with the club for Opening Day.

But there’s a lot of work to be done if he wants to stick around.

“The name of the game is trying to improve every day,” Greiner said. “Nobody’s got this thing figured out, so I’m just trying to work hard and get better.”

Boyd embraces competition

Two of the Tigers’ top pitching prospects — right-hander Casey Mize and lefty Tarik Skubal — made their way into the starting rotation last August. And it won’t be long before right-hander Matt Manning, another esteemed prospect, arrives.

As the youngsters develop, there will be increased competition for the older pitchers, namely left-hander Matthew Boyd and righty Michael Fulmer.

“Competition breeds success,” Boyd said Wednesday. “We’re all just out there making each other better.”

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Last year, Boyd made 12 starts, finishing with a 6.71 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 22 walks. He gave up an MLB-leading 45 earned runs and 15 homers through his 60⅓ innings.

Mize had a 6.99 ERA in seven starts; Skubal ended at a 5.63 ERA in eight appearances. They are vying to break camp with the Tigers, rather than getting relocated to Toledo.

“When guys like that are competing, it makes everybody better,” Boyd said. “They’re only going to make us a better ballclub. We’re really fortunate to have guys like that, young guys who are very mature in their game and mature in how they go about their business.”

Stretching out vets

Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez and lefty Derek Holland — two MLB veterans on minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training — were among the seven pitchers who tossed bullpen sessions Wednesday.

Hinch wants them stretched out to 35-50 pitches, able to go multiple innings. Left-handers Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander, each on the 40-man roster, also fit into this category.

“We have a pretty defined starter group and reliever group,” Hinch said. “Obviously, Ramirez and Holland, both veteran guys, can do a little bit of both. The key is going to (be building) them up … before you have to decide what to do with those guys from a preparation standpoint for the season.”

Ramirez, 30, has nine years in the majors with four teams, posting a 4.31 ERA across 655 innings. In six relief appearances for the Mets last season, he logged a 0.63 ERA in 14⅓ innings.

Holland, 34, finished last season with a 6.86 ERA in 40⅔ innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He started five of his 12 games. He is a 12-year MLB veteran, pitching to a 4.61 ERA while playing for five teams.

“The use in the games will be multiple innings for those guys,” Hinch said. “From a mentality standpoint, you have guys that are just trying to make a team, and they’ll do whatever you ask. Right now, we’re asking to stretch them out once the games start.”

Intrigued by prospects

Hinch got to watch Skubal and Manning pitch in person for the first time. Before Wednesday, he was restricted to videos and phone calls. And he checked in on Mize, who went through pitcher fielding drills.

Mize is the Tigers’ No. 2 prospect, followed by Manning at No. 3 and Skubal at No. 5.

“It’s fun to watch Skubal throw a live BP one slot over from Manning,” Hinch said. “There’s a reason to be excited about these guys. I let them know, ‘You’re not going to make the team today, but what you do today is going to build toward making the team.’ There’s a lot written and talked about with these guys.

“I love the reputations. I love the prospect status. I’ll love the production on the field more.”

Also, Hinch gets to train 22-year-old Dillon Dingler, the No. 8 prospect in the farm system. He received an invite to camp but hasn’t played a professional game yet. Dingler was a second-round pick in the 2020 draft from Ohio State.

“He’s on the outside looking in of that (backup) group,” Hinch said, “but he’s going to flourish from being around these guys.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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