Detroit Tigers stock watch: Breaking down the race for backup catcher

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — It’s too early in spring training for Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch to name a backup catcher. As a matter of fact, deciding between Grayson Greiner, Jake Rogers, Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase might take until the final days of camp.

Essentially, the catchers split into three categories.

The first is Wilson Ramos, the guaranteed starter. He signed a one-year, $2 million contract this offseason, so the 11-year veteran — who brings a powerful bat — is slated to start most of the Tigers’ games in 2021.

[ Developing Wilson Ramos: Inside former Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez’s mentorship ]

The second group consists of Haase, Garneau and Greiner, who are vying for the backup job with enough MLB experience — Haase and Greiner with three years, Garneau with six — that we can make an educated guess about their future performance.

And then there’s Rogers. The 25-year-old prospect played 35 games in 2019, but after hitting .125 in his short stint, he hasn’t made it back to the majors. This could be his final chance to show the organization that he has long-term value.

At some point, expect to notice a small shift in playing time among catchers not named Ramos.

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Here’s how the four catchers competing for the backup job are trending early in spring training:

Spring stats: 3 H, 4 BB, 1 K in four games.

The buzz: Hinch wants to see trends at the plate, rather than worrying about stats in a small sample size: Battling in at-bats, making hard contact and getting ahead in counts. Greiner is showing signs of that. His single Tuesday came off the bat at 110.5 mph, the hardest-hit ball of the game. And his single Friday logged a 96.1 mph exit velocity. Greiner also has plenty of experience with the pitching staff. Let’s call Greiner — a career .194 hitter across 106 games — the leader among the veterans.

What Hinch said:He’s swung the bat pretty well. I know he has put a lot of emphasis on his bat. He was mentally pretty frustrated with how the season went last season. Even into previous seasons, he hasn’t been quite able to establish himself as a major league-only guy. I can relate. I know what that’s like and what that feeling is like. He has been able to make some adjustments, defensively, as a big target to get himself low enough by going to one knee, to control the pitches that are low with his long levers. He talks a lot during the game, which I love. Again, (he) is right in the thick of that competition.

HINCH TALKS: What AJ Hinch wants to see from the possible backup catchers this spring

Spring stats: 1 H, 0 BB, 1 K in three games.

The buzz: Garneau knows how to work with a pitching staff, especially young arms, with 140 MLB games played. Still, he’s only a career .202 hitter. The only way Garneau makes the Opening Day roster is if Rogers isn’t ready and Greiner, for some reason, becomes a defensive liability.

What Hinch said:I like his leadership behind the plate. He knows what he does well, and that’s command the game and the pitching staff, and how he can get a pitcher through a game plan. He has some savviness about himself behind the plate. He wants to offer something offensively, it’s always important, but he knows where his money is made, which is running the game and getting the pitcher to optimize his stuff. … I do have an interest in seeing if he can be a guy that can help us advance these young pitchers as they get to the big leagues and change the dynamic of how we pitch by how he calls games. He’s in a big competition, but I’ve been impressed with his presence.

MORE: Catcher Dustin Garneau preparing for any role he can get in the majors

Spring stats: 1 H, 0 BB, 4 K in four games.

The buzz: Rogers must show he can handle major-league pitching at the plate. Not at an All-Star level, but the team’s No. 12 prospect (according to MLB Pipeline) can’t seem incompetent. Four strikeouts (one looking) in his first four at-bats this spring didn’t help. Likewise, his lone hit — a double Thursday — was a fluke hit lost by the center fielder in the sun. Defensively, however — which Hinch says should be Rogers’ top priority — he’s perfect through 10 innings.

What Hinch said: The games will be key. He’s been very open to the feedback. He and I exchanged a few texts about some setup stuff, and I’ve sent him pictures and videos. JP (Josh Paul) has been working with him to try to simplify things. We have Tom Prince in camp, and we have Brayan Pena. He’s getting like catcher overload with the staff that we have, but he’s been very open to it. … (Games) are where it gets complicated for him because you revert to old habits, whether it’s presenting the target, presenting the pitch, the game calling stuff. You’ll see me talk to him quite a bit or you’ll see a lot of interaction. That’s the only way you can give feedback to players during the game. … He’s been good. I think his mentality is in the right place.

MORE: Jake Rogers has plan to work with AJ Hinch in spring: ‘I hope he gets on me’

Spring stats: 2 H, 0 BB, 3 K in five games.

The buzz: Haase was dropped from the 40-man roster to make room for right-hander Jose Urena, leaving him a step. behind Greiner and Rogers entering the spring. But he’s taking advantage of other positional holes, taking ground balls at first in Monday’s pregame warmups. He made his first-ever pro appearances in left Wednesday and Thursday, before serving as the designated hitter Friday. It’s clear Haase is on the outside looking in at catcher. He is a career .122 hitter across 26 games in parts of three seasons.

What Hinch said: “We’d like to add some utility to him. … Obviously, he’s going to catch a little bit. I’ve got five guys that I’m trying to work in behind the plate, plus (Dillon) Dingler, who is young. Part of it is the motivation to get him some at-bats and get him some playing time. Part of it is over the next three, six, nine months, two years, three years, his ability to move around the field would help him become more of a factor at the major-league level. He’s athletic enough. At the (alternate training site) last year, he was doing it out of need, just because there weren’t enough guys there. He’s taken a few balls at first base. He’s going to work a little bit of the outfield. He’s going to catch. All added pluses on his resume if he can do it.

MORE: Eric Haase (Dearborn Divine Child) may make a play at backup catching job

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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