For all of their difficulty developing homegrown talent over the years, the Detroit Tigers have actually done quite well at the catcher position. They drafted and developed their last two catchers, Alex Avila and James McCann, netting a near-decade’s worth of starts (and an All-Star appearance) behind the plate. Grayson Greiner may be able to fill in this season as well, giving Detroit a fully homegrown tandem behind the plate.
Prospect Jake Rogers wasn’t drafted by the Tigers, but he has a chance to continue providing surplus value from the catching position for years to come. He is also the best catching prospect the Tigers have had in recent memory. Neither Avila nor McCann were borderline top-100 talents like Rogers, and neither have his defensive pedigree.
As with most catching prospects, Rogers’ ceiling will be determined by how well he hits. However, after a breakout season in 2017, his stock has never been higher.
The Astros drafted Rogers out of Tulane with their third round pick in 2016. He wasn’t the most productive hitter in college, but broke out with a .787 OPS in his junior season to put himself on Houston’s radar. His overall numbers fell off somewhat in professional ball later that summer, but he maintained a high walk rate across two levels.
The 2017 season was Rogers’ first full year in pro ball, and it could not have gone much better. He hit .255/.336/.520 with six home runs in 27 games at Single-A Quad Cities. This earned him a mid-May promotion to High-A, where he continued to hit. He put up an .814 OPS in 83 games, all the while playing his usual stellar defense. Perhaps most encouraging were the 12 home runs he hit, giving him 18 total in 491 plate appearances for the year. He also added 25 doubles and four (!) triples.
Rogers’ calling card is his defense. MLB executives voted him the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues last year thanks to a well-rounded skill set.
Rogers erased 46 percent of basestealers in his first full pro season, enhancing solid arm strength with a lightning-fast transfer and impressive accuracy. His agility and soft hands also make him an outstanding receiver and blocker who excels at framing pitches.
This sentiment was echoed by Baseball Prospectus, who named him the No. 7 prospect in Detroit’s system.
Another piece of the Verlander deal, the Tigers targeted Rogers for his outstanding ability behind the dish. He has a plus arm, is steady with his framing and overall seems to be a highly poised defender. He’s quick off the plate and and snaps off accurate throws, so it’s easy to see him making it to the majors based on his defense alone.
Other reports are just as glowing. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen called Rogers “the best defensive catching prospect I’ve seen.” TigsTown called him “a polished, high-end defender.” Multiple outlets, including MLB Pipeline, have given his glove a rare double-plus (70) grade.
While Rogers’ arm has drawn mixed reviews, the combination of his other tools helps it play up. MLB Pipeline still slapped a 65 on it, while one front office executive said it is, “more of a 55 arm...but it’s so quick and accurate.” Mets prospect Kevin Kaczmarski would disagree.
While Rogers’ bat is certainly the weakest part of his game, he made big strides with a breakout 2017 season in High-A. Both MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs grade Rogers’ raw power as a league average tool, which actually translates to a bit above average if you grade him on a curve (as a catcher). He won’t hit for a high average, but has demonstrated good plate discipline, walking in over 10 percent of his plate appearances as a professional. He also cut down on his strikeouts last year, fanning just under 20 percent of the time.
However, Rogers’ bat is still a work in progress. He has a below average hit tool and will probably see his strikeout rate tick upward again as he faces more advanced pitching. Even in High-A as a 22 year old, he only hit .265, and that is his highest batting average as a professional. While we know that there are far better offensive statistics to judge a player on, Rogers will need to tap into as much power and plate discipline as he can to be a serviceable hitter in the majors.
Baseball Prospectus went a bit further into Rogers’ flaws at the plate.
He’s worked to cut down on what was a high leg kick coming out of college, but it’s still a moderate leg kick that causes weak contact when the timing doesn’t line up properly. The swing itself can be disjointed, and he’s had trouble picking up off-speed stuff.
It’s hard to ding Rogers for his speed as a catcher, but there’s nowhere else to tell you that he’s a decidedly below-average runner (like most catchers). He won’t steal many bases (like most catchers), even though he swiped 13 bags in High-A last year. Expect him to cost his team a few runs every year on the basepaths (like most catchers).
Projected team: Double-A Erie
After a productive season in High-A, Rogers will start the year in the high minors. He’s already major league ready from a defensive standpoint, but needs consistent plate appearances to further help his bat develop. He will benefit from Erie’s relatively hitter-friendly atmosphere, but facing more advanced arms will provide a tough challenge for the young backstop. However, don’t expect him to move all that quickly. Even if he continues to get on base and hit for power, I could see the Tigers giving him a full year in Erie and most of 2019 in Toledo before finally testing him with a longer-term promotion in 2020 — just in time for McCann’s final year before free agency.