A.J. Hinch put out the warning for Jake Rogers soon after he was hired as the Tigers' manager.
“It’s a blessing and a curse to play for an ex-catcher when you’re a catcher,” Hinch said in November. “One part is we’ve 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.”
Rogers is not only ready -- he’s eager for it.
“He’s going to be hard on me, and I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Rogers said in a video conference with reporters Wednesday. “Especially him being a Major League catcher, he’s definitely going to be hard on me, and I’m going to probably enjoy it a little too much. I hope it gets on me a little bit. That’s how you learn.”
Better to get too much attention, perhaps, than to be ignored or forgotten. Because for a good portion of last season, Rogers would have been justified to feel like a forgotten man in the Tigers' system.
Rogers seemed to be in position to compete for a job in Detroit last year after making his debut for the Tigers down the stretch of the 2019 season. The fact that he was cut from the roster near the end of Summer Camp was expected. The fact that he wasn’t seen at Comerica Park again was not.
While Tigers catchers combined for an American League-low -0.9 Wins Above Replacement (per Fangraphs) last year, Rogers spent the season at the alternate training site in Toledo, Ohio, catching and hitting in makeshift intrasquad games. He continued to work on his swing and hitting approach, but he didn’t test it out in games that count. Rogers helped prepare Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal for their big league debuts, building on their relationships from Double-A Erie and Spring Training, then watched them on television.
“I was super pumped for them,” Rogers said, “because they’ve worked so hard to get to that point.”
Rogers never followed them to the big leagues, not even on the taxi squad. When Detroit made a catching move in September, it called up local product Eric Haase.
“It was definitely weird,” Rogers said of the alternate site setting, “and I’d much rather be playing against other teams in the big leagues or whatever. But it was what it was. I was down there, I was getting work in. We were all down there having fun playing baseball, so it was definitely better than sitting at home and not doing anything.
“It was definitely not a wasted year. I’d much rather be playing against teams, but we dealt with what we got.”
Rogers’ work continued this offseason. He reprised his hitting routine in California with instructor Doug Latta, then took the lessons back home to Texas. He met with new Tigers hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh earlier this week. He plans on heading to Lakeland, Fla., early to work with pitchers ahead of Spring Training.
Once camp begins, Rogers will begin working with a manager who knows his plight, and not just because he was an Astros prospect before the Justin Verlander trade.
Hinch also knows the weight of being a highly regarded catching prospect. Like Rogers, Hinch was a third-round Draft pick out of college. He climbed the A’s farm system to the big leagues after one Minor League season, making Oakland’s Opening Day roster in 1998 at age 23. After three seasons with the A’s, Hinch was traded to Kansas City in a package for then-Royal Johnny Damon, spent two years with the club and then appeared with the 2003 Tigers.
Hinch only briefly dealt with Rogers in the Astros' system, but he knows about him.
“His tools are really good,” Hinch said. “I think he can shut down a running game. He can do some things athletically that you can’t teach. We need to bring his whole game together, whether it’s the running of the game, game-calling, to mixing in the attraction of being an offensive player and how to separate those two things and not bringing your offense to your defense. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around a lot of guys; the ingredients are all there for him to be good.”
Rogers said he had a half-hour phone conversation with Hinch earlier.
“We just kind of talked and caught up a little bit,” Rogers said, “and he asked how I was and asked what I thought about the org and about some guys. He just kind of picked my brain a little bit and I picked his, and it was a great conversation. He was very encouraging, saying, 'You’ve got to go in there and earn your job.'”
That last task is about to become a little tougher. For much of the offseason, Rogers was one of just two catchers on the Tigers’ 40-man roster along with Grayson Greiner. That will change once Detroit finalizes its one-year contract with veteran free agent Wilson Ramos, essentially creating a competition with Greiner, Haase and others for the backup job.
Rogers isn’t going to stress about it. This was already going to be a critical camp for him with his 26th birthday coming up in April.
“That’s out of my control, whoever they decide to bring up north,” he said. “I’ve just gotta be me, and hopefully I can make a name for myself and earn a job. I definitely have to earn it. It’s not just going to be given to me. It’ll all work itself out. I’m just gonna keep my nose on the grindstone and keep going.”