Attention, passengers: this is the last stop on the Jake Rogers prospect train. Please gather your belongings and prepare to depart.
Catcher Jake Rogers has been a top 10 prospect in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system since the team acquired him, right-handed pitcher Franklin Perez, and outfielder Daz Cameron from the Houston Astros in exchange for franchise legend Justin Verlander at the trade deadline in 2017. Verlander has produced 13.0 fWAR for Houston in the past two seasons alone, but hey, we’re not here to talk about how the Tigers are currently on the wrong end of what could become a historically bad trade.
Instead, we turn our eyes to a catcher who is a handful of plate appearances away from losing his rookie eligibility (and prospect status). Rogers played well at Triple-A Toledo and earned a late-season promotion, but hit [checks notes] .125/.222/.259 in 128 plate appearances last season in Detroit.
Look. We’ll get into the details below, but let’s keep this short; Rogers has a cannon arm, a great glove, and he can hit for power. At his current level of play (and assuming a .210 to .220 average over the course of a season), he is on pace to become a mid-to-low-level major league starting catcher. Rogers’ ceiling will purely be determined by maintaining his elite level of defense and improving his hit tool moving forward. He draws a solid amount of walks — he even walked 10.2 percent of the time in the majors last year — but he strikes out at a high rate than we would like. If he fails to solve the mystery that is big league pitching and can’t crack a .200 average at the major league level, he is more of a backup catcher moving forward.
Rogers was selected with the 97th overall pick in the 2016 amateur draft by the Houston Astros. During his collegiate career at Tulane University, Rogers was an incredible defensive catcher with a career .233 average over three seasons. He played 156 games in the Astros farm system, all below the Double-A level. He batted .254 with 21 home runs across the three levels he visited, and produced an .814 OPS at High-A Burlington before he was shipped off to Detroit in the Verlander deal.
Through his time in the Tigers’ organization, Rogers has had his share of highs and lows. After an ugly start to his 2018 season in Double-A, he eventually finished the season with a 97 wRC+ and 17 home runs in just 408 plate appearances. This power is essentially a prerequisite for a starting major league catcher, as 31 catchers had double-digit home runs in 2019.
After a blazing start in 28 games at Double-A in 2019, Rogers once again posted a 97 wRC+ mark, this time at the Triple-A level. This earned Rogers a promotion to the big leagues, where he posted a miserable .481 OPS and a 27 wRC+. Even worse, he struck out in 39.8 percent of his plate appearances, and even showed some holes defensively, with nine passed balls in just 34 games.
Rogers’ greatest tool is his arm. He set the Tulane school record in most runners caught stealing in his three years at the university. He also set the Double-A Erie franchise record with 50 runners caught stealing in 2018, and nabbed 54.7 percent of batters stealing between his time in Double and Triple-A. To contextualize that, no catcher caught at least 50 percent of baserunners stealing in the majors in the 2010s, and only one catcher (Yadier Molina, naturally) has bested a 54.7 percent caught stealing percentage since 2005.
Rogers’ fielding prowess matches that arm strength. In just 35 games in Detroit, Rogers was worth 2.5 runs behind the plate per the defensive component of fWAR, and that was with Rogers only throwing out 39 percent of batters. He has long been recognized as one of the very best defenders in the minors, and was named to MLB Pipeline’s All-Defense team in 2018. In short, he is going to field, and he can field well.
Rogers also is a reliable power hitter. He hit 18 home runs in 431 plate appearances across three levels last season, and managed 17 homers in 408 plate appearances at Double-A in 2018. In 2019, only four catchers had at least 500 trips to the plate: Yasmani Grandal, J.T. Realmuto, Wilson Ramos, and Christian Vazquez. Only 14 catchers — under 50 percent of major league starting catchers — had 400 plate appearances. The mean home run total across these 14 backstops was about 19 home runs. If Rogers can continue his minor league production in the majors, he would be middle-of-the-pack amongst these catchers. He also has a better glove than a majority of these players. If he could hit .230 to .240 (a big ask, as we’ll get to), he would be an above-average major-league starter.
Let’s address the big “what-if” that has loomed over this entire profile: Rogers’ hit tool. In 99 games at the Double-A level in 2018, Rogers hit .219. He wasn’t much better at Triple-A last year, batting .223. To be precise, Rogers had 77 hits in 2018, and 77 hits once again (his time in Detroit included) in 2019.
One reason for this? Rogers has a leg kick that hinders his swing. It’s something we have discussed in the past, and MLB Pipeline is still concerned about how it will affect his development.
The leg kick in Rodgers’ swing that served him well in 2017 detracted from his ability to hit in Double-A, where timing issues made him susceptible to good sequencing and resulted in too much swing-and-miss. When he did make contact, Rogers consistently hit the ball in the air, so there’s reason to believe his above-average raw power will continue to play even if never hits for much average.
This quote is a bit old — Pipeline’s new prospect list won’t be out until later this month — but it still rings true today. Rogers’ leg kick does contribute to the power in his profile, but it also has led him to struggle to hit when he faces higher levels of competition. Now that Rogers has reached the big leagues, can he find a way to overcome or tweak his mechanics and perform against pitchers with better stuff who have mastered the art of pitch sequencing? That is the million-dollar question (or perhaps the multi-million dollar question, as it pertains to Rogers’ long-term financial outlook).
Projected 2020 Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens / Detroit Tigers
In a recent article from the Detroit Free Press, general manager Al Avila addressed the Tigers’ catching situation entering spring training.
“Rogers is going to have the opportunity to play,” Avila said. “But again, it’s not going to be handed to him ... These guys are going to be given an opportunity, but it’s not going to be handed to him.”
Since that article was published, the Tigers acquired catcher Eric Haase from Cleveland. This means that, going into spring training, catchers Austin Romine, Grayson Greiner, and Eric Haase will all be competing with Rogers for a spot on the Tigers’ 26-man roster. There’s a chance the team carries three catchers, but assuming they only carry two and let the others receive playing time down in Toledo, Rogers would likely be the odd man out.
Expect Rogers to begin the season in Toledo as the team gives him another opportunity to work on improving at the plate. He will turn 25 on April 18 and has three minor league options remaining, so this is far from Rogers’ last chance to put it all together. The Tigers absolutely hope for Rogers to form a battery with at least a couple of their star pitching prospects in 2021 (and beyond). It’s up to Rogers to have a strong 2020 and make that dream a reality.