The 26-year-old, eight weeks removed from Tommy John surgery, is making progress but won’t start throwing until the end of February. He had the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow repaired by Dr. Keith Meister on Sept. 8, after landing on the injured list July 19 with arm soreness.
“I was pretty frustrated,” Rogers said Monday. “I hate to miss time. I’ve never really missed time. I pride myself on being out there and being ready. I don’t want to be the guy that’s hurt. That was the frustrating part for me, just wanting to play. … Everything was falling into place, and then this happened.”
The injury and subsequent surgery occurred at the worst possible moments.
Returning to the big leagues for the first time since an ugly 35-game stint in 2019, Rogers displayed vast improvements offensively and defensively — a sign of comfortability and confidence — under the mentorship of Tigers manager and ex-MLB catcher AJ Hinch.
Finally, Rogers wasn’t solely tagged as an uncertain ex-prospect from the Houston Astros in the lopsided 2017 Justin Verlander trade. Instead, the Tigers achieved one of their big-picture goals in 2021 when they confidently cemented Rogers as their catcher of the future.
“Jake Rogers was doing tremendous,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said Oct. 5, after the team finished with a 77-85 record. “AJ and (quality control coach) Josh Paul did a great job. We were so encouraged about the future with him, in combination with (Eric) Haase. Now he’s not going to be here to play next year, for the most part. That leaves us with an area of concern.”
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Rogers, momentarily forecasted as the starting catcher, is now rehabilitating his elbow in Texas.
He attends physical therapy four times per week, currently focused on strengthening his shoulder and forearm and working out his healthy lower body. Using his upper body to lift light weights won’t happen for another two weeks in what he expects to be an 11-13 month recovery. The estimated timetable projects him to be game-ready in August, September or October.
“I’m pushing to be back next year,” Rogers said. “There is no way of me knowing whether I could or not, but I’m not going to rule it out. I’m just putting my nose on the grindstone and working hard to get back as soon as possible. As soon as possible might not be next year, but in my head, I’m getting ready to play next year and getting my mind ready, so if I can, I’m going to.”
How it happened
The Tigers were preparing to play the Texas Rangers on July 19 at Comerica Park when Rogers approached Haase, then the backup catcher, to reveal a newfound problem with his throwing arm. He had “felt a pop” in his elbow, which “happened out of nowhere,” while long-tossing as part of his pregame routine.
“I finished throwing, but it hurt pretty bad,” Rogers said. “I didn’t really say anything. It hurt, but I didn’t want to be the first guy to be like, oh, this is bad. But in the back of my head, it was like, oh, crap.”
The elbow pain continued during batting practice.
“Man, I think I’m going to have to tell them,” Rogers told Haase. “They’re probably going to pull me from the lineup, so get ready to play.”
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That day, the Tigers placed Rogers on the injured list and phoned Dr. Meister, the head team physician for the Rangers and a well-known orthopedic surgeon. (Meister conducted Michael Fulmer’s Tommy John surgery in March 2019.)
After reviewing the MRI on Rogers’ elbow, Meister suggested four weeks of rehab as a precaution. He wasn’t sure if Rogers needed surgery, so he didn’t want to propose the career-altering procedure unless it was necessary.
“We took his advice,” Rogers said. “That’s pretty much what the Tigers were saying, as well. I went down to Florida and rehabbed it for about four weeks and started building up again. It was still hurting when I was hitting. I ended up throwing a couple days later, and it wasn’t good.
“I went to down to see Meister the next week and pretty much knew I was going to have to get surgery. At first, it was pretty tough. It was tough news. I knew in my gut it wasn’t very good, but in the back of my head, I was just trying to work hard, rehab and avoid the inevitable.”
The inevitable, though, became unavoidable.
“Once I made the decisions to get surgery and who I was getting surgery with, I put it behind me and focused on getting my arm better and stronger,” Rogers said. “There were a few moments of frustration. I really wanted to play and be out there with the guys. But once everything settled and my thoughts gathered, it was like, let’s get this behind me and move forward.”
Reflecting, looking ahead
Despite the injury, Rogers solidified himself in the Tigers’ plans moving forward.
He started the 2021 season in Triple-A Toledo, but the Tigers promoted him in early May for his second-career stint in the big leagues. The first go-around was nothing short of a disaster, as Rogers hit just .125 with sub-par defense across 35 games in 2019. He then spent the entire 2020 season at the alternate training site because minor leagues were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Going into this year, I was confident,” Rogers said. “In the shortened season, I didn’t get much of a chance at all. With my next chance, I wanted to run with it and show them I could play. I just needed a little bit more reps and more playing time. If they let me have that, then I was going to run with it.”
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Entering Rogers’ May 8 return, the Tigers had the worst record in baseball at 9-24 overall.
“When I got called up, I went and told AJ, ‘All right, now we go. Let’s get the boys back on track'” Rogers said. “I pride myself on being a good guy and a good teammate. I told him, ‘I’m going to bring good vibes and we’re going to start winning.’ He was like, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ It just happened to work out that way.”
The Tigers went 34-27 from May 8 until July 18, which was Rogers’ final game of the season. He posted a .239 batting average, five doubles, three triples, six home runs, 17 RBIs, 11 walks and 46 strikeouts over his 38 games.
“As the year went on, the numbers got better,” Rogers said. “I finally got my footing, got a little comfortable, got my approach locked in and just trusted myself. Because in ’19, when I got that little cup of coffee, everything was going a million miles per hour and I was swinging at everything. It was just getting that (second) chance and running with it.”
Rogers made defensive strides, too, allowing just three passed balls and making one error over 310⅔ innings behind the plate. His defense, which had been lacking, was the main reason Rogers had been considered a top prospect since the Astros drafted him No. 97 overall in 2016.
With better defense, he became a viable MLB starting catcher.
“Learning how to call a game, I think I made a step forward in that aspect,” Rogers said. “I don’t think you can ever fully grasp how to call a game. It’s constantly evolving, because you might face a guy in April or May, and then in August or September, he could be a completely different hitter. Having AJ there to bounce ideas off of definitely helped.”
Now that Rogers is sidelined and working back from Tommy John surgery, the next checkpoint in his progression should happen in Lakeland, Florida, home of the Tigers’ spring training facility, where he plans to show face in late January or early February.
Rogers believes he is on track to train with weighted balls upon his arrival to camp, which should lead to throwing a baseball in late February.
By that point, the Tigers will likely have a better idea of his timetable for a full recovery. Even when he gets healthy, he will have to prove himself again at the big-league level. While Rogers’ accomplishments this year were significant, he is gearing up to play with a chip on his shoulder.
And he hopes to do so in 2022.
“I always want to go out there and show them what I got,” Rogers said. “I want to be up with those guys to win. I still have some things to prove in order to stay up there and make a name for myself. I’m really never comfortable. There’s always guys they can sign. So I just want to keep my name hot and keep them wanting me to play every day.
“I’m working my butt off to get back and help the Tigers win.”