LAKELAND, Fla. — Jake Rogers’ moustache looks like he went back in time 20 years to borrow it from Todd Jones. At the same time, it might be a fitting metaphor for Rogers’ 2020 season.
“I did it a little bit at the alternate site last year,” Rogers said Tuesday. “Of course, no one got to see it then. But I was like, ‘Well, I’ll bring it back.’”
Rogers competed for a roster spot last year in Spring Training, then again in Summer Camp. When he lost out to Grayson Greiner, he was optioned to the alternate training site in Toledo, Ohio. And then, he basically disappeared — no callup, just two months of simulated camp games.
When A.J. Hinch became the Tigers’ skipper, he talked with the former Astros prospect. He warned that being a catcher in Spring Training with a former backstop for a manager isn’t going to be easy. But he also listened.
“I think sometimes as a leader, it’s more important to listen than what you really told him,” Hinch said. “It’s a two-way street, and I wanted to get some background on him, his time in the organization, what he’s learned in his brief stint in the big leagues, and then what last year meant to him, the fact that he didn’t get up here to the big leagues.
“And then obviously, I’m going to let him know [that] as a catcher, I take it very personal for our catching department. My background is obviously in catching as well, and that we were going to have a good plan for him and to give him a straight shot as to what I think.”
A week into Spring Training, camp has gone as advertised. Hinch is giving Rogers a chance to make the roster behind Wilson Ramos. He is also making it clear what Rogers needs to do.
“He came prepared to compete for a job,” Hinch said last weekend. “It’s been all laid out in front of him, and I’ve been in communication with him most of the winter, so he knows what’s ahead of him. He knows he’s going to get the opportunity. He also knows he has to do some things to solidify himself as a Major League-ready-now catcher.”
Much of the scrutiny on Rogers the past couple years has been on his offense. He joined the Tigers’ system 3 1/2 years ago in the Justin Verlander trade with a reputation as one of the best defenders at the position in the Minor Leagues, arguably Major League ready from that aspect. The question was whether his offensive approach would mature. His hot start at Double-A Erie in 2019, batting .302 with a .963 OPS in 28 games, sent him on a climb that propelled him to Detroit for the final two months of the season.
Rogers began his big league career with four home runs in his first 11 games, but he ended the season in a 7-for-76 slump with 36 strikeouts. He spent the past two offseasons with noted hitting instructor Doug Latta, but he lost critical at-bats last summer with the cancellation of the Minor League season. New Tigers hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh has talked with Latta and caught up with his work.
At the same time, Hinch has let Rogers know that his work behind the plate comes first.
“The reality is from his manager, I want him to know that he will lose playing time or lose a spot on this roster more because of what he does on defense,” Hinch said. “We have to continue to encourage and get the most out of him defensively. That’s his No. 1 priority. The offense, we’re going to continue to work with him, and Cooley’s been kind of wearing him out with their conversations. But where a lot of attention is going to go to the offense, the fastest way to sit next to me [on the bench] or be down in Triple-A is if you mess up the defense. Your priority as a catcher is going to be behind the plate, specifically for him.”
“It was a good talk,” Rogers said. “I like how honest he is. I’m a pretty brutally honest person myself, so I respect that out of anybody.”
Not surprisingly, he has heard brutally honest opinions about the moustache, too.
“It’s kind of mixed reviews,” Rogers said. “A lot of people are saying [it’s] bold, and a lot of people love it. …
“I like it. As far as my family goes, I think they don’t like it.”