The Detroit Tigers were the worst team in baseball in a lot of categories last season. This comes with the territory of losing the most games in a single season since Detroit dropped 119 games in 2003. While it’s a small victory to say that the Tigers’ catching corps was not the worst in baseball, they weren’t very far ahead of the Texas Rangers. All told, Tigers catchers were worth a whopping 3.3 wins below replacement level.
All four of the catchers Detroit fielded last year were at least a half-win into the red. Two of them — backup Grayson Greiner and prospect Jake Rogers — are back in 2020, while Bobby Wilson and John Hicks are now in other organizations (Wilson as a minor league manager). The Tigers picked up free agent Austin Romine on a one-year deal back in December, and purchased Eric Haase from Cleveland in early January. There will be other backstops in camp as well, but these four should get most of the playing time at the MLB level in 2020.
Let’s take a look at how this roster battle will shake out.
Starter: Austin Romine
The Tigers handed Romine a $4.1 million contract back in December in hopes that he will be able to continue his solid production (2.2 WAR in 149 games over the past two seasons) while receiving a larger share of playing time this season. His walk rate and isolated power (ISO) took a slight downturn in 2019, but his 95 wRC+ was a career-best, and far better than what any of the Tigers’ catchers produced. Even a slight regression — Steamer projects him for 0.9 WAR and an 87 wRC+ — will represent a massive upgrade for Detroit.
In the mix: Grayson Greiner, Jake Rogers, Eric Haase
Both Greiner and Rogers struggled mightily at the plate last year, striking out at least 31 percent of the time. Neither hit for much power, though Rogers nearly matched Greiner’s home run total in just over half the number of plate appearances. Greiner is projected to improve by a substantial margin in 2020, but even that would only bring him to replacement level (Steamer projects him for 0.1 fWAR in 42 games). He was a below average pitch framer last season, but Baseball Prospectus graded him as a borderline elite framer in the minor leagues in both 2017 and 2018, so there is reason to expect some improvement.
The same goes for Rogers, who is a more interesting case. Rogers fanned in nearly 40 percent of his MLB plate appearances last year, but had a solid season at the plate for Triple-A Toledo, hitting nine home runs in 48 games. Steamer also projects a major improvement for him, and we have even more evidence to suggest that his defensive numbers will get much better. His issue with passed balls was strange — he allowed nine in 34 MLB games last summer — and will be something to keep an eye on going forward. However, as the Catcher of the Future (TM), Rogers may start the season in the minors to get his feet under him before another summer promotion.
Haase is a bit of a wild card. Scouting reports suggest that he is the worst defender of the bunch — FanGraphs graded him below average, while Greiner and Rogers have received average or better grades in the past — but Haase has legitimate 70-grade raw power, and has put it on display, with at least 20 home runs in each of the last three minor league seasons. The 27-year-old Haase is also projected for just 0.1 WAR, but Steamer only has him projected for 11 games played. His offensive upside may even lead the Tigers to carry three catchers on the roster to start the year as they (and other teams) explore the best use for their new 26th roster spot.
Also in camp: Cooper Johnson, Brady Policelli, Kade Scivicque
Like most teams, the Tigers have invited a number of catchers to major league camp simply to handle all of the pitchers on staff. Johnson, Policelli, and Scivicque will all eventually head to the minor leagues at some point, but should glean some valuable experience from working with the major league arms and high-level prospects in Lakeland. A few late-inning at-bats could serve both Johnson and Policelli well, though neither is projected to be more than a backup when (or if) they reach the major leagues. Scivicque is a solid minor league backstop, but at 26, likely has no major league future ahead of him.