Detroit Tigers still believe in catcher Jake Rogers. Here's why

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

The first big-league season for Detroit Tigers catcher Jake Rogers didn't go as planned.

Even dating back to his Tulane career, he has been known for his prowess behind the plate rather than with his bat, but last season's woes with the stick were unforgettable: He slashed .125/.222/.259 with four home runs, eight RBIs and just 13 walks against 51 strikeouts in 35 games.

Hoping to deliver, Rogers failed.

But the 25-year-old, who came to the franchise in the Justin Verlander trade, is still learning. Manager Ron Gardenhire has noticed growth and even brought along veteran Austin Romine to help ease the kinks.

"The final part is finding that swing and feeling comfortable," Gardenhire said of Rogers, "and we had good conversations about it. At the end of the day, it's you standing up there with a bat, so you've got to feel comfortable up there and find something that works."

Tigers catcher Jake Rogers bats during the intrasquad scrimmage Thursday, July 9, 2020, at Comerica Park.

Behind the plate, he boasted just one error in 34 games and caught seven of 18 runners stealing. Only two players — Detroit's John Hicks and the L.A. Dodgers' Will Smith — had fewer errors in more contests last season. And just one player (Dustin Garneau, 16) had more than 13 assists in 34 appearances or less.

Rogers' only blemish was nine passed balls.

"Very quick, very athletic," Gardenhire described.

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That's no surprise. A 2016 third-round selection by the Houston Astros, Rogers was tabbed as the best defensive catcher in the draft. In his minor league career, he has gunned down 49% of runners trying to steal. Before being sent to the Tigers, he hit .265 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs for High-A Buies Creek.

At the time, Detroit thought he'd continue his growth at the plate. Except Rogers' fortunes returned to the gloomy reality of a defensive star unable to hit. He showed his power last season — 14 homers in 76 games between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo — but couldn't consistently get on base, averaging more than one strikeout per game.

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But something began to change this spring. Albeit a small sample size, Rogers slashed .429/.500/1.286 with two homers and three RBIs in five spring training games. More importantly, he only struck out twice.

So far in summer camp, he has been solid, including a double to right-center field in Monday's intrasquad game (sending a Gregory Soto pitch to the opposite field wall might be what proves he's got this thing figured out). Or it was his Thursday home run against Nolan Blackwood, or his RBI double Saturday. 

That's a good thing for him. Right now, Grayson Greiner is hot on his tail for Detroit's long-term catcher crown. Recent second-round pick Dillon Dingler shouldn't be far behind.

The Detroit Tigers held workouts at Comerica Park Friday, July 3, 2020. Catcher Jake Rogers waits to take batting practice as the team prepares for the shortened 2020 season.

Romine also joins the mix on a one-year contract. He's the leader of the pack with six MLB seasons under his belt, and he didn't come into the fold to hit sky-high home runs. Instead, the 31-year-old is tasked with teaching three players — Rogers, Greiner and Dingler.

"We have a couple of guys, and myself included, that were added to this team to bring a little bit more leadership to the team," Romine said. "I think it's just going to be infectious in the clubhouse."

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Greiner, 27, has hit .209 with five home runs and 31 RBIs in 88 games across two seasons in Detroit. Meanwhile, Dingler's bat was the reason general manager Al Avila picked him. He had a .340 average with five homers and 14 RBI's in 13 games before the coronavirus canceled his final season at Ohio State.

"Happy where I ended," Dingler said. "Hope to maintain that same mindset at the plate."

Now that also doesn't mean Dingler automatically becomes the new top catching prospect in town. He's got a lot to learn before then, and Rogers is the most big-league ready because of his defensive abilities.

It's simple, actually: Rogers' defense is going to get him to the majors again this season, but his offense is the only thing that can keep him around.

"But more than anything, this guy can be a real impact player behind the plate," Gardenhire said. "We all get that, all see it. He's matured from last year to this year, conversations are so much better about what he needs to do. He understands a lot more.

"And you know what, he's gonna be a good one."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold