Examining the Tigers’ options behind the plate

The Tigers had a quiet offseason in Scott Harris’ first winter as president of baseball operations. The new head of the front office seems content to take a season to evaluate the organization before reevaluating where to invest to return to playoff competitiveness in 2024 and beyond.

Across the lineup, the club has players trying to carve out long-term roles. MLBTR looked at various outfield possibilities a few months ago. The infield could be a little more settled, with something like that Spencer Torkelson, Jonathan Sup and Javier Baez seemingly in position for regular playing time. There’s plenty of uncertainty about how manager AJ Hinch will distribute reps behind the plate, as Detroit allowed last year’s primary backstop Tucker Barnhart to depart in free agency after one season.

Turning to the players remaining in Detroit:

Jake Rogers27, one minor league pick remaining

Rodgers’ defense has caught the attention of evaluators for years. Prospect writers rated the Tulane product as a plus or better defender, praising his athleticism, grip, arm strength and acumen for handling his pitching staff. Those strong defensive reviews have been paired with lingering questions about how much he’ll contribute at the plate. This has manifested itself at the MLB level, as the right-handed Rogers has just a .182/.264/.378 line with ten home runs, but a whopping 38% strikeout rate in 73 big league games.

Those were split between 2019-21, as Rodgers missed all of last year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He’s healthy again now and has played in 11 spring training contests. He has yet to hit more than 40 big league games in any season, but his defensive reputation could earn him an extended look at some point.

Eric Haase30, zero options left

Haase was arguably Detroit’s best offensive player last year, at least on a percentage basis. Among Tigers hitters with 200+ plate appearances, he was the only one to produce at an above-average wRC+ level. Haase hit .254/.306/.443 through 351 trips to the plate. His strikeout and walk numbers weren’t great, but he connected on 14 home runs. That came after a 22-homer streak over just 98 contests the previous year.

The former Cleveland draft pick clearly brings above-average right-handed power. Even with fairly mediocre on-base numbers, he is a strong offensive catcher. However, Haase has never really established himself on the other side of the ball. Statcast has him rated as a well below average fielder and places him near the bottom of the league in terms of keeping balls in front of him. He has shown solid arm strength but not a particularly polished shot.

Haase is athletic enough to get some time in left field. He has logged 216 2/3 innings there over the past two seasons and could continue to play a role in the outfield. He’s out of options and brings some much-needed power to Detroit’s lineup, so he’ll be on the roster, though he doesn’t necessarily need to be a catcher given his defensive question marks.

Donnie Sands26, two options remain

Sands, a Yankees draft pick, has been in the professional ranks for more than seven years. An eighth-round pick out of high school in 2015, he climbed the second-round ladder very slowly. Sands didn’t break out of the low minors until 2021. A solid showing between the top two levels of second basemen that year caught the attention of the Phillies, who acquired him that offseason. The right-hander spent nearly all of last season with Philadelphia’s Triple-A affiliate, hitting a .308/.413/.428 clip with a whopping 15.7% walk rate and solid 18.2% strikeout rate in 242 plate appearances .

The Phils didn’t have a chance for Sands at the MLB level. JT Realmuto entrenched as starter, while Garrett Stubbs and Raphael Marchand create quality depth options. Sands appeared in just three major league games — his first MLB action — as a September call-up. This winter, the Phils picked him up Nick Matton and Matt Virling in the Gregory Soto agreement.

Sands hasn’t gotten a look at the big league pitches. He’s 26 years old and has never been a high-profile prospect. Still, he has nothing left to prove against second-tier weapons. The Tigers can keep him in the minors until 2024, but they might be better served seeing what they have sooner rather than later. Detroit has two interesting catching prospects — Dillon Dingler and Josh Crouch — who have reached Double-A and could play on the MLB radar by ’24. They should know where Sands fits in that hierarchy before these younger players consider roster spots.

Andrew Knapp31, not on the 40-man roster

Knapp signed a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training during the offseason. It’s a known quantity for Harris, who was part of the Giants’ front office when the shortstop played for San Francisco last season. Knapp, who had pitched exclusively for the Phillies before a nomadic campaign in 2022, was also held off the field by Realmuto at Citizens Bank Park. He never really produced when given periodic big league opportunities, hitting .209/.310/.313 in 325 games. He is the most experienced catcher in camp, but not currently on the 40-man roster.

Mario Feliciano/Michael Papierski

Feliciano and Papierski saw brief MLB action in 2022. The former appeared in two games for the Brewers, while the latter appeared in 39 contests between the Giants and Reds. Detroit picked up both offseason waivers, but didn’t keep any players on the roster. The Tigers did not tender Papierski before re-signing him to a minor league deal. Feliciano resigned within two weeks of the claim. Neither hit particularly well in Triple-A last year. They’ll be in the organization as top-level insurance, but they look behind the group of Rogers, Haase, Sands and maybe Knapp on the depth chart.

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