If there is one overwhelming flaw in the Detroit Tigers attempt to rebuild the franchise, it’s the lack of trade return in the 2017 sell-off. While the Chicago White Sox landed Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease for starter Jose Quintana earlier that summer, the Tigers have yet to see anything from the Justin Verlander deal with the Houston Astros. Catcher Jake Rogers was never the centerpiece of the trade, but there was hope of getting an elite defensive catcher with some power. Unfortunately, on every front, the deal hasn’t gone as planned.
Rogers is a Texan who played his high school ball for Canyon High School. Despite a strong senior season, he went undrafted and attended Tulane University instead. There he flourished defensively, but his bat also developed in kind. He was a Cape Cod League All-Star in 2015, and after a strong junior year, the Houston Astros drafted him in the third round of the 2016 amateur draft.
Almost from the start of his pro career, Rogers established a pattern of struggle and then eventual success at each level as he climbed toward the major leagues. His first partial season at the Class-A level produced an 89 wRC+, but he came out in 2017 and mashed to a 138 wRC+ mark. That saw him promoted to High-A, where he posted good marks prior to coming over to Detroit. His first look at the Double-A level saw him put up a 98 wRC+ in 2018, but he came back with the Erie SeaWolves in 2019 and mashed to a 179 mark for a month before being promoted to Triple-A.
You get the drift, but unfortunately, the pattern went awry once he reached the major league level. Rogers got 128 plate appearances late in the summer of 2019. Things started off with some promise, as he homered in four of his first 11 games. Unfortunately, there was also plenty of swing and miss, which quickly reached a crescendo as Rogers flailed his way through late August and September, ultimately posting a 40 percent strike out rate, with far too much weak contact to help offset the non-competitive plate appearances. Since that point, we haven’t gotten a chance to see if his ability to bounce back and succeed could handle the major league level.
Rogers strengths remain his receiving and throwing. Long regarded as one of the best framing catchers in the minor leagues, Rogers may have over-emphasized that skill to a degree, resulting in more passed balls than a major league manager could stomach, but his soft hands and strong, accurate throwing arm remain the basis for hope that he can eventually hit just enough to bring his strengths to bear at the major league level.
Offensively, Rogers best traits are a decent eye at the plate, and average raw power. Even in his rough go at the major league level, Rogers walked in over 10 percent of his plate appearances. That’s a few points above league average. If we break down plate discipline into two parts, zone discipline and spin discipline, Rogers is pretty good in the zone department. He identifies non-strikes, particularly with fastballs, quickly out of pitchers’ hands and doesn’t chase them out of the zone. The power isn’t jaw-dropping by any means, but his max exit velocity of 103.1 is plenty enough for 20 home run power were he to make enough contact.
Obviously, he doesn’t make enough contact. Rogers feasted on lesser pitchers and hanging breaking balls in the minor leagues, and those are few and far between at the major league level. More to the point, Rogers showed a marked weakness against velocity, particularly up in the zone, and cheating to catch up to the heaters left him more vulnerable than ever to well located breaking balls down. He’s sort of a classic grooved swing type, but without quite the eye and contact ability of a paragon of that profile like Alex Avila, for example.
Rogers spent some of the 2019-2020 offseason working with renowned hitting instructor Doug Latta. The emphasis was on his timing mechanism, and in trying to develop better extension through the hitting zone, rather than the distinct uppercut of a swing he had in the minors. The hope was to help Rogers cover the outer half of the plate better, and give himself more time in the zone to make contact. As of yet, we haven’t seen enough of him to judge results, but the fact that he was left off the major league roster by both Ron Gardenhire and now A.J. Hinch, in favor of a decidedly poor hitter like Grayson Greiner, does not bode well.
One of the stranger elements to this, is that Rogers continues to draw praise for his defensive work from the Tigers. One would think that would be enough to land a backup role at least, but his mediocre blocking appears to be enough to scare the Tigers from even trying him again at the major league level. Perhaps they just don’t want to admit this isn’t working out publicly.
It’s been posited that he overemphasizes his receiving with runners on base, leaving him a little slow to shift position to block balls down. Still, that’s more of a mental approach issue than a physical one, and should be overcome with a shift in focus. And yet he never really seemed to be a player the team was prioritizing this spring. One gets the overall sense that after almost four years in the organization, the Tigers just do not have confidence in him at this point in either facet of the game.
Projected 2021 team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
We decided to ride with Rogers one more time entering spring training when we created out preseason prospect rankings. After a rough spring with only a small amount of plate appearances and no notable improvement in his contact ability, it’s difficult to keep the faith. This is Rogers last season on the list, as he turned 26 in April. It’s still possible that the lost 2020 season and brief looks in camp didn’t really allow him to show his ability in the best light, and he’ll probably get another look at the majors this season. Still, something has to change in a big way soon, or his chance to be part of the Tigers future will be out of time.