One of the more memorable introductions written for an article on this site was crafted by John Marlatt for a piece on free agent backstops back in November 2016.
“Catchers are like toothbrushes,” he wrote. “They are necessary and do an important job, but aside from the really expensive ones that do special stuff, there’s really nothing exciting about acquiring one. Even the ones you spend a lot of money on often make you question if it was really worth it.”
Tigers prospect Jake Rogers fits that paradigm nicely. It required parting ways with a future Hall of Fame candidate in Justin Verlander to add Rogers (and two other prospects) to the pipeline. Although one could argue that the trade was a necessary evil for the Tiger at that point, that’s still a pretty expensive catcher. Rogers can do some special stuff, though, and has what is probably the highest floor of any prospect on our top 30 list.
Rogers was a defensive stalwart during his days at Tulane University, but it was obvious from day one that his production as a pro was going to be lopsided. He landed in the third round, taken by the Houston Astros. Little more than one year later, he was no longer part of Houston’s organization. He had been exported, shipped off as the opposite end of the deal that added Verlander to a team destined to win the World Series.
As a member of the Tigers’ organization, Rogers has been a boring prospect, but in a good way. He is still a defensive stalwart, and still has roadblocks to being a productive hitter. He hit .219/.305/.412 in 99 Double-A games. That included a 10 percent walk rate (good), a 27.5 percent strikeout rate (bad), and 50.0 percent fly ball rate (ugly). Even so, he’s a very polished catching prospect getting ever closer to the majors.
It’s difficult to overstate Rogers’ value as a defender, but I’ll give it a shot. A player as keyed in to the offensive side of his game as Rogers is on defense would undoubtedly be rated among the game’s finest minor leaguers. Unfortunately, though, a player’s ability in the field is never as valuable as his contributions at the plate. That makes it harder to come up with ways to describe players who live and breathe by their glove.
Nevertheless, we need adjectives somewhere in the article, so I’ll steal one recently employed by FanGraphs’ description of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s bat — “messianic.” That’s a good way to describe Rogers’ defensive acumen; even if he never hits his weight, he could still be a second tier big-league starter. At the very least, evaluators think he could have a hearty career making his way around the league as a defense-first backup.
Rogers puts on a masterclass in poise behind the plate every time he takes the field. His impressive reflexes allow him to handle stray pitches with grace and he is often commended for his ability to stifle runaway balls in the dirt. He is also heralded as an excellent pitch framer, which is a breath of fresh air for an organization that’s given the lion’s share of playing time to poor framers like Alex Avila and James McCann for the better part of a decade.
As you’d expect from a catcher so well-regarded, Rogers’ quality arm can keep pace with his stellar glove work. He has all three attributes that scouts look for in spades: pop time, arm strength, and accuracy. It’s a deadly combination, one that served him well in Erie. In fact, he broke the SeaWolves’ single-season record for runners caught stealing in 2018. It’s another plus tool in his repertoire and only adds to the likelihood that he will be a plus defender in the bigs.
Here is the record breaking throw from Jake Rogers as he nailed a base stealer for the 48th time this season, setting the SeaWolves single-season record. He passes Mike Rivera who threw out 47 in 2001. #RoadToDetroit #Tigers @_JROG_ @DetroitTigersPR pic.twitter.com/uv8DOAYxZL— Erie SeaWolves (@erie_seawolves) August 23, 2018
Rogers is also able to contribute at the plate thanks to some solid power. He has a high-stepping swing mechanic that allows him to put a lot of force into his swings. When he makes contact with the ball, things usually go well. He posted a relatively low 31.4 percent ground ball rate to go along with raw power that borders on plus. He could eventually hit double-digit home runs given a full season of at-bats.
That goose-stepping uppercut mechanic that put the oomph in Rogers’ swing also makes it very difficult for him to time out pitches correctly. He always has had a lot of swing-and-miss in his game — remember the high strikeout rate we mentioned earlier? — and that doesn’t figure to go away any time soon. He has always hit at every level... eventually. As he gets promoted and faces pitchers more skilled at exploiting a hitter’s every weakness, it becomes less and less likely that Rogers adapts yet again.
That is really all that can be said about the weaknesses in Rogers’ otherwise polished game, but it’s unfortunately a disproportionately large part of his profile. It’s possible that a change in approach is coming down the pipe for Rogers. Odds are that his uppercut power swing simply has too many holes to work for much longer. Shifting to a less extreme offensive style could work in his favor. For example, that could be accomplished with a swing that’s a little less noisy, possibly cutting out the KBO-esque high step in exchange for a more understated toe-tap.
Top brass may also decide that he just doesn’t have it in him to hit for much more than he can with the kick, in which case, leaving it there would be the prudent course of action. Given his high walk rate and solid power, it may not be worth changing if he can continue to get on base and punish mistakes, strikeouts be damned.
Aside from his contact issues, the only thing he doesn’t excel at is running, which is really no surprise. Catchers don’t need to be speedy, though, and they often aren’t thanks to their typically stocky builds.
Projected Team: Double-A Erie SeaWolves
Despite spending a whole season there in 2019, Rogers hasn’t quite mastered Double-A pitching quite yet. His lukewarm performance at the plate was two percent below league average, per wRC+. While his defense is playable in the bigs already, there’s obviously still work that needs to be done on his bat. Rogers will also be a good influence on the abundance of top pitching prospects that the Tigers will cycle through Erie this year. If he starts the season out hot, it would not be a surprise to see him quickly promoted to Triple-A. For now, though, he will stay with the SeaWolves.