Eric Haase out, Carson Kelly in as Tigers shake up their catching

CLEVELAND — Before the Detroit Tigers loaded the bus and headed to the hotel Friday night in Cleveland, manager A.J. Hinch called in catcher Eric Haase for a meeting. And just like that, the hometown kid who lived out a dream in the summer of 2021, the grizzled catcher who came into this season established on the roster for the first time, was gone.

The Tigers designated Haase for assignment after Friday’s game. The next afternoon, former Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly was walking on the field in uniform, still carrying a D-Backs bag on his shoulder. This is the business of baseball in action. One player gone, another here. The schedule moves on without sentiment.

Still, there was an odd feeling around the Tigers on Saturday as they traverse forward without the player who hit 36 home runs across the 2021 and 2022 seasons for his hometown team and was a large part of its emotional core.

Important as Haase was to the club, his performance had been waning all season. Known as a bat-first catcher, Haase simply never got going this season. He ends his time as a Tiger hitting .201 with only four home runs and a 46 OPS+ this year. Once viewed as a lefty-killer, Haase was hitting only .129 against left-handed pitching this season. And so the Tigers finally decided it was time for a change.

“It’s tough to deliver that type of news to someone who is universally liked, loved, respected,” Hinch said. “He had some really cool moments for us here. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gone great this year.”

Eric Haase (Lon Horwedel / USA Today)

Only a few days ago, Kelly was on the other end of a similar conversation. The Diamondbacks designated him for assignment on Tuesday. Kelly, 29, is a former top-100 prospect who has long been hailed in scouting circles. He has battled injuries over the past two seasons but was a standout performer in 2019, when he hit 18 home runs with a .348 on-base percentage and strong defensive metrics, too. Kelly has never since replicated his 2019 season, though as he pointed out, some of this has been out of his control.

In May 2021, Kelly fractured his left toe. In June 2021, he fractured his right wrist, breaking two bones. Last May, he went on the injured list with a Grade 2 oblique strain.

Kelly entered this season hoping for a bounce back and expecting to be part of a strong catching tandem alongside Gabriel Moreno. But Kelly took a 101 mph fastball off the wrist on March 20, toward the end of spring training. He missed four months.

“I think it’s gonna make me a better person because of it and a better player,” Kelly said. “I’ve had a lot of time to think and work on things, and this is gonna be a great place for me.”

Upon his return to the Diamondbacks, Kelly hit only .226 with one home run in 32 games. He comes to the Tigers on a major-league deal with a $3.5 million player option for the 2024 season. The Tigers view him as more likely to be part of next year’s roster than Haase would have been. So now Kelly faces a crash course: getting to know a whole new pitching staff and navigating batters from the American League.

“What do we got, six weeks left?” Kelly said. “Definitely an interesting time, but these guys were one of the ones to call right away and show interest. Talking with A.J. and seeing the staff and the young pitchers that are here, it’s impressive, and it’s something that I could see going in a really good direction.”

On paper, Kelly has not exactly been more productive than Haase over the past two seasons. But throughout his career, he has graded out as a slightly above-average pitch framer. His blocking has been close to league average, and he’s slightly below average when it comes to controlling the running game.

“We think there’s some areas we can address to make him better,” Hinch said. “We think we can improve his receiving. He’s got some power. He’s got experience. He’s had some really freakish injuries that have held him back a little bit, but he’s a well-rounded catcher. We like the contact skills. We have a plan in place to get him up and running.”

Before Haase left the Tigers clubhouse Friday evening, Jake Rogers, who has seized the bulk of playing time at catcher, hugged his teammate. Rogers told Haase, “I’ll probably see you in a month or two raking for another team.”

Less than 24 hours later, Haase’s replacement sat atop the dugout bench ready to embrace this new opportunity.

“It’s definitely tough,” Kelly said of getting designated for assignment. “But at the end of the day, it’s a business and you understand.”

(Top photo of Carson Kelly: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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