LAKELAND, Fla. — The sun beats down on Detroit Tigers catcher Jake Rogers as he walks alone in New Moore, Texas. There isn’t a traffic light in this town, only a lonely stop sign to direct vehicles for 15 locals. His grandmother used to own a grocery store — Rogers Grocery — on the corner, but it’s long gone.
The Texas Panhandle sand pelts Rogers as he treks two, three, sometimes five miles. A calm day constitutes wind moving 15 mph. When the sand blows, the ground changes, revealing treasures: arrowheads, pottery and other ancient artifacts.
“If you don’t like it, you’re just sitting out there looking at dirt,” Rogers, who turns 26 in mid-April, told the Free Press at the Tigers’ spring training facility. “For me, it’s getting away from everything. Being in the middle of nowhere is kind of that release for me.”
These days, it’s farmland, but the area used to belong to two Native American tribes: the Comanches and Apaches. His father, Dusty, has permission to journey the land. Rogers looks for rises in the plains, especially near a water source, to make an educated guess on where Native American camps were set up long ago.
That’s how he knows where to discover new items.
It’s a pastime that involves at least a little focus on the past. Rogers can’t afford to dwell on history, recent or otherwise. Then, in Tigers camp, the catching prospect who hasn’t quite panned out looks to the future, and at a spot in the organization that grows shakier the further he gets from the deal that brought him to Detroit.
That nearly non-existent town in Texas is where Rogers unearths solace. Solace from his 35-game MLB debut in 2019, where his gruesome .125 batting average doesn’t matter. Solace from his summer of 2020 spent exclusively at the alternate training site in Toledo, Ohio. And the thought of not winning the backup gig in 2021? It never crossed his mind, at least not while arrowhead hunting.
But in Lakeland, Rogers has a vision for his future with the Tigers.
“I want to be the guy,” Rogers said. “I want to be the guy they can lean on. I want to be the guy that pitchers come to and they’re like, ‘Man, I want to throw to you.’ I love chopping it up with the boys, whatever it may be. I just want to be that, you know, the Tiger way — come to the field, be a gamer and really pride myself on being an everyday guy. Hopefully, I’ll get there.”
Trade sets tone
On Aug. 31, 2017, the Tigers acquired Rogers and two other prospects from the Houston Astros in exchange for Justin Verlander. From the moment general manager Al Avila reeled in Rogers, he was dubbed the franchise’s “catcher of the future.”
Mike Elias, then the Astros’ assistant GM and now the Baltimore Orioles’ GM, remembers how the Astros felt about losing Rogers, a 2016 third-round pick from Tulane. He was — and still is — considered one of the best defensive prospects at catcher.
“There was definitely a lot of hesitation from the Astros to include Rogers,” said Elias, who served as Houston’s director of amateur scouting from 2012-16. “If this guy starts to outperform offensively, even a little bit, you’re really going to regret it. But it turned out to be a pretty good trade for the Astros.”
Shipping Rogers away, even for a likely future Hall of Famer, wasn’t an easy decision. At the waiver trade deadline, Verlander was 34 and hadn’t been an All-Star since 2013. His runner-up finish in 2016 American League Cy Young voting was tempered by a 3.82 ERA in 28 starts with the Tigers in 2017.
Meanwhile, Rogers looked the part of a rising star.
“He was our top catching prospect in a system that didn’t have an obvious catcher,” Elias said. “The Astros were really valuing catcher defense and pitch framing; they knew he was good at those things. And then, it’s just so hard to find a defensive catcher of that caliber.”
So far, the Astros have received the better end of the deal.
Verlander helped the Astros win the World Series in 2017, with a 1.06 ERA in five September starts and a 2.21 ERA in six playoff appearances. The big righty then secured his second Cy Young and tossed his third no-hitter in 2019. Verlander’s success amped up the pressure placed on Rogers to justify giving away one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.
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Tigers manager AJ Hinch is a witness to both sides. He was Houston’s manager from 2015-19 and became the Tigers’ manager in October 2020.
“It would be nice to refer to him as just Jake Rogers,” Hinch said. “Not Jake Rogers from the Verlander trade. That’s the way some people are going to judge him. He can’t control that part.”
What Hinch knows
Rogers’ time in the Detroit organization has been commonly defined by three points: the Verlander trade, his poor MLB debut in 2019 and missing out on the majors last year.
Add another moment to the list: About a week before the start of the 2021 season, Rogers found out he’d be starting out in Toledo. First up: Fifth Third Field, which the Tigers are using as an alternate training site — where players can be shuffled to and from the majors — until the Triple-A season begins in May. “It’s going to be a tough month for him,” Hinch said.
His time in the majors wasn’t much better: He remembers an ugly slump in 2019, a 16-game span from Aug. 17-Sept. 7 in which he picked up two hits in 52 at-bats. That year, he struck out 39.8% of the time he stepped into the batter’s box with the Tigers. He knew he was struggling and admits he was relieved when the season ended.
“I was pressing then,” Rogers said. “I had a lot of weight on my shoulders.”
Amid the disheartening experience two years ago, Rogers learned to keep a short memory. He discovered how to push forward without fearing failure. Spending all of 2020 in Toledo was another roadblock. Yet Rogers continues to deflect the past and focus on the future.
“Man, I don’t care about anything (in the past),” Rogers recalls telling Hinch. “I come to the yard, I want to play baseball, and I want to have fun. All I can ask for is an opportunity. If I squander it, if I run with it, that’s on me.”
Hinch can relate.
The 46-year-old manager once was a stud at Stanford, complete with a spot on Team USA in the 1996 Olympics. He was drafted in the third round, like Rogers, in 1996 by the Oakland Athletics and debuted two years later. He had power but a slow bat; he struck out too often.
Soon after, he was supplanted by Ramon Hernandez as Oakland’s “catcher of the future.”
By 2000, Hernandez appeared in 143 games with the A’s, and Hinch was down to six appearances in the majors. Four years after that, his career had flamed out: 350 games across seven years for four teams, with a .219 batting average and 214 strikeouts.
“The numbers speak for themselves, whenever you hit .220,” Hinch told the Free Press. “But when you actually get beat out by somebody, that feels like a failure when you’re accustomed to being a big leaguer. To me, that was immediate feedback that things needed to get better.”
Rogers isn’t yet out of chances at a long-term future with the Tigers, but time is running out. He has now lost the backup role to Grayson Greiner in back-to-back seasons. The team spent a second-round pick on another college catcher, Dillon Dingler, in 2020. At some point, Rogers could return to Comerica Park, gifted another chance through injury or poor performance; it might be his last chance.
Because the majors are ruthless, even for someone once deemed partially worthy of a Verlander swap.
Gone missing: 2020 edition
Escaping baseball, and the Verlander connection, at his father’s property in Texas only lasts so long — about three weeks after each season ends. Then, Rogers goes back to the drawing board. He visits Doug Latta, a well-known hitting instructor, at Ball Yard Hitting Academy in Northridge, California.
This winter, Rogers worked back from a low point in his career, passed over in favor of the 28-year-old Greiner, one-year rental Austin Romine and, when the Tigers needed a catcher in September, 28-year-old Eric Haase.
“I think it’d impact anybody,” Latta told the Free Press.
Rogers added: “You don’t want to be there (in Toledo). Everyone wants to be at the highest level, and when you’re doing well, you don’t want anything else.”
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Because of the shortened schedule, last year might have seemed like the perfect time to get Rogers more experience. But Avila didn’t give him the call-up because “those at-bats were not going to determine what he’s going to do at this point.”
Indeed, what difference would a .400 batting average in eight games have made? Or an embarrassing hitless streak? At best, Rogers thinks he has it all figured out. At worst, he sinks deeper into his frustrations.
“But at a certain point, somebody’s got to make a decision, either trade him or let him play through,” Latta said. “The only way he’s going to get that veteran ease is having an opportunity to work at the big-league level.”
‘Can’t put a timeframe on it’
The culmination of three years with Latta is 2021. They began working on Rogers’ swing in the offseason leading up to the 2019 campaign. It was a change the Astros expected when they drafted him. The Tigers learned more by evaluating him in real-time.
“We knew he could benefit from simplification,” Elias said. “What we weren’t sure about was that if he stayed the same, in terms of his mechanics, this guy was such a premium defender that he might hit enough, as is. And then maybe there will be some ceiling if you tap into more efficient mechanics.”
Rogers showed up to spring training last year with a more generic swing, allowing him to see the ball better — and sooner — out of the pitcher’s hand. He ditched his leg kick. He adopted a balanced stance to eliminate head movement.
In theory, the fixes would limit swings-and-misses and lead to harder contact. He should gain the ability to make minor adjustments in the middle of at-bats. But that’s all contingent on repeating the new mechanics and avoiding old habits.
“You can’t really put a timeframe on it,” Latta said. “The biggest key is being able to put himself in the right mental place. Some of it has to do with just being relaxed enough, not worrying about every at-bat … without all the little thoughts about proving he belongs.”
But hitting wasn’t the only concern this spring; Hinch stressed Rogers’ defense as his top priority. And, naturally, despite more struggles on offense, Rogers cleaned up his act behind the plate — albeit not difficult compared to his swing changes — and reinstated himself as the top defensive catcher in the organization.
“I doubt you have a backup that’s as good a catcher as Jake,” Latta said.
The defense is there again, but, alas, the bat.
Those issues — and likely the weight of the Verlander deal — will linger for a while. There’s a 185-day span separating Opening Day in Detroit and the season finale in Chicago, upon which Rogers can return to walking alone near his father’s property in West Texas.
The biggest year of Rogers’ career starts in Toledo in April: “I want to fight for this job,” Rogers said. “I want to get to the major-league level, gain experience and stay there.”
So, it’s clear Rogers knows where he wants to be, and needs to be, when he packs his bags to return home and search the plains of New Moore.
“The best therapy you can have in your life, that right there,” Dusty, his father, told the Free Press. “You don’t forget anything, but you’re just living in that moment. You’re not living in what’s happened or what’s about to happen, you just live in a moment where you enjoy the moment.”