How AJ Hinch plans to rewrite the story on prospect Jake Rogers
To this point, AJ Hinch has swiped the best part of the "blockbuster" trade between the Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros from three years ago. Now, as the Tigers manager, he wants to see the other part of the deal flourish.
That starts with catcher Jake Rogers.
"His tools are really good," Hinch, a former MLB catcher, said Thursday.
On August 31, 2017, the Tigers traded right-hander Justin Verlander, one of the best pitchers in his generation, to Houston — where Hinch was the manager from 2015-19 — for three prospects: Rogers, outfielder Daz Cameron and right-hander Franklin Perez.
Two months after Verlander was traded to the Astros, he finally won his elusive World Series with Hinch as his manager. He pitched 13 seasons in Detroit, tossing two no-hitters and appearing in a pair of World Series in 2006 and 2012.
Hinch was hired Oct. 30 as the Tigers manager to complete the rebuild and morph the team into winners. To accomplish that task, help from Rogers, Cameron and Perez — the other half of the Verlander deal — will likely be necessary.
And the 46-year-old manager has a plan to turn Rogers into a formidable starter.
"I think he can shut down a running game," Hinch said. "He can do some things athletically behind the plate that you can't teach. We need to bring his whole game together, whether it's the game-calling to mixing in the attraction of being an offensive player."
That's where Rogers hasn't lived up to the hype.
General manager Al Avila admits Rogers was prematurely brought to the majors in 2019 to fill gaps in the lineup. The decision didn't work out well: Rogers hit .125 with four homers and eight RBIs in 35 games. He didn't return to the Tigers last season, spending the entire season at the alternate training site in Toledo.
"From a defensive perspective, he's the real deal," Avila said last month. "I do have worries about his offense."
With the help of quality control coach Josh Paul, who was a catcher for nine MLB seasons, Hinch thinks he can rewrite the narrative on Rogers.
"It's a blessing and a curse to play for an ex-catcher when you're a catcher," Hinch said. "One part is we got a lot of expertise and a lot of feel for that position. The bad news is we have a lot of expertise and a lot of feel for that position."
What Hinch means is Rogers isn't going to get away with any mistakes. They're going to analyze everything he does, push him to make improvements and, hopefully, get him on track to make the big-league club out of spring training.
Rogers needs to find his identity on offense and ask himself: What type of hitter do I want to be?
"The ingredients are all there for him to be good," Hinch said.
Right now, the Tigers have three catchers preparing to compete for two openings at the position in the majors: Rogers, Grayson Greiner and Eric Haase. While Avila previously spoke about developing catchers internally and sticking with those three in 2021, Hinch isn't ruling out adding another catcher from the free agent market.
"It's going to be interesting to see, do we consider adding to that mix of catching?" Hinch said. "That's something that Al and I have talked about that can help both the pitching staff and the catcher, but the right guy has to be there for that. If not, we have three capable guys that can play at the major-league level right now."
The jackpot on the open market is JT Realmuto, who hit .275 with 25 homers and 83 RBIs in 2019. Last season, he had a .266 average with 11 home runs and 32 RBIs in 47 games.
Yet Realmuto is slated to get a multiyear contract worth more than $100 million, so he probably isn't a fit for the Tigers. That leaves James McCann, Austin Romine (who the Tigers signed for last season), Yadier Molina and Alex Avila, to name a few options.
"I'm sure there's going to be somebody out there that piques our interest," Hinch said. "But right now, focusing on the guys we have, it's a blend of guys that are trying to figure themselves out at the major-league level."
Adding Molina, 38, on a one-year contract would be interesting. He could help the development of both Rogers and 2020 No. 38 overall pick (second round) Dillon Dingler.
If Molina is willing to take a mentor-first role as his career winds down, Rogers could get plenty of starts as Hinch attempts to mold him into the catcher of the future the Tigers once expected him to become.
"I invest a lot of time into the pitching and catching relationship and what that means and how that really sets the tone for a team," Hinch said. "I haven't reached out to any of those guys yet, but I will over the next few weeks."