DETROIT -- Jake Rogers says he doesn’t have many superstitions, but he does have one important one.
“I gotta use the same bat,” the Tigers catching prospect, and the club's No. 7 per MLB Pipeline, said last week at Major League Baseball’s Rookie Career Development Program. “That's about as far as I'll go. When I break it, it breaks my heart. I'm not really big on superstitions.”
Fittingly, then, it’s the bat -- that one, or the ones after it -- which will likely determine when and whether Rogers takes over for good behind the plate in Detroit.
“From a catching perspective, we feel that he's got all the talent to be a really good catcher and call a good game and run a good pitching staff. He's shown us that,” general manager Al Avila said at December’s Winter Meetings. “With him, it's about the bat. And at the end of the day, he's not going to be able to let the hitting affect his catching, because that's always going to be his No. 1 priority. And hopefully he's talented enough where the bat comes around where he can become an everyday guy. Because the difference between a backup catcher and a starting catcher is whether he can hit enough to be the starting guy. And we'll give him time to figure it out.”
The Tigers rushed Rogers to the big leagues last summer, Avila admits in hindsight. The move, according to Avila, was out of necessity with Grayson Greiner injured (lower back strain) and John Hicks and Bobby Wilson splitting time behind the plate. With Rogers long since considered ready for the Majors defensively, Detroit took a chance that it could live with growing pains on the offensive side as he tried to adapt his hitting approach.
“We felt we had to bring him up,” Avila said. “But at the same time, in going back and checking, most people felt that he would be able to handle it. And quite frankly, it probably even affected his catching, because at some point, young guys get overwhelmed.”
That point wasn’t right away. Rogers churned out two hits July 30 in his Major League debut, including an RBI single, then hit a solo homer the next day as part of a three-run performance to help the Tigers to a rubber-game win over the Angels. He went 11-for-106 with 50 strikeouts the rest of the way, finishing with a .125 average.
It was a big lesson for Rogers in the day-to-day grind that Major League catchers must endure to survive.
“Looking back on it, you're just kind of going and going,” Rogers said. “Every day, it's something different. It was pretty cool to go to the [SiriusXM All-Star] Futures Game and be in that, but I think the debut was really cool. I was able to debut in Los Angeles and be around guys like [Albert] Pujols and [Mike] Trout and Miggy [Miguel Cabrera] and [Nicholas] Castellanos. It was pretty cool. I've worked my whole life to get to that point, and to be able to breathe and realize where you are, it's really cool.”
Austin Romine’s arrival in Detroit increases the chance that Rogers will open this season at Triple-A Toledo, but the Tigers will give him a chance to compete for a roster spot in Spring Training.
“He's young, he's talented, we like him a lot, he works really hard, so he's going to have an opportunity to do something,” Avila said. “But it's not going to be handed to him.”
The fact that the Tigers sent Rogers to the RCDP demonstrates their belief that he can take the next step and stick in the Majors. The program allows all 30 MLB clubs to send up-and-coming prospects to learn from established veterans how to avoid career pitfalls.
Among the veterans to talk at the program was another former Tigers catcher and the GM's son, Alex Avila.
“The big thing about this game is that you’re always learning,” Rogers said. “Every little thing helps, so having a lot of guys here and great players that I've played against and heard about and read about, having them all here [helps].”
Rogers could have learned from Alex Avila had the Tigers been able to sign him back as a free agent. Instead, they’ll watch him from the other side of the AL Central with the Twins. But it’s another former Tiger whom Rogers has his eye on.
“I wanted to face Verlander,” Rogers said. “We got the chance to go down there to Houston to play them [last August]. I got traded for him [in 2017], so I thought it would be pretty cool to have that little competition. Unfortunately [I] didn't play that day, got to face [Gerrit] Cole the next day, so that was pretty cool.”