A.J. Ellis gets chance at catcher
MESA, Ariz. -- Biding his time at his locker amid the typically cramped conditions of a spring-training visiting clubhouse, A.J. Ellis wasn't worried about having to wait one more day for his big chance. Every other Cactus League game in the Phoenix metro area already had been canceled, and the steady rain falling outside at HoHoKam Park made it clear that the Dodgers' date with the Chicago Cubs was about to be sacked, as well.
After seven seasons of professional baseball, most of them spent pounding away in the low minors and far below the organizational radar, what's one more day?
Los Angeles Dodgers
Sometimes, opportunities come in strange packaging, especially in baseball. There isn't anyone associated with the Dodgers, Ellis included, who was happy to hear the news that durable catcher Russell Martin would be lost for the next four to six weeks because of a groin pull. But the club has no choice now but to make the best of things, for as long as necessary, and no one is more ready to do that than Ellis.
"My job coming into spring training is to help ... get the pitching staff ready for the season,'' he said. "That is exactly what I'm going to try to do, so that when Russ gets healthy and he takes over again, the pitching staff is ready for him.''
In the meantime, there is a very strong chance that Ellis, who has made exactly three starts behind the plate in the major leagues, will make his fourth one on Opening Day in Pittsburgh April 5. And if it's a proposition Dodgers fans aren't entirely comfortable with, well, manager Joe Torre and general manager Ned Colletti don't really care, because they are completely comfortable with it.
"He handles the game well, and he is a tremendous worker,'' Torre said. "Sometimes, you look at a guy who practices, practices, practices, and you feel good for them, but they can't play. But as a former catcher and a manager, I know how important defense is. And [Ellis] has made himself a good hitter, a grinding type of guy who puts the ball in play.''
And a guy whose time, for the moment at least, appears to have come.
"A.J. Ellis will have an opportunity,'' Colletti said, "and that is what careers sometimes are made from.''
Ellis hasn't been promised the everyday job for as long as Martin is out. All Torre would say for sure is that Ellis will get most of the playing time for the rest of spring, with veteran backup Brad Ausmus getting the bulk of what is left over. But that doesn't mean Ausmus, who has won three Gold Gloves in his 17 big-league seasons, won't end up being the primary catcher when the season begins.
"I think by [Opening Day], it will still be A.J. and Ausmus,'' Torre said. "But I think it's a matter of trying to figure out what the balance of playing time will be. Ausmus has played every day in the past and he is used to playing every day, even though he was a backup for us last year.''
The reality, though, is that unless Ellis falls on his face in the Cactus League, he'll be the main guy. Ausmus has considered retirement each of the last two winters, and even though he is a youthful 40, he is still 40. He hardly seems like a candidate to squat behind the plate 170 or so times a game five or six days a week.
Ellis isn't your typical rookie. He will turn 29 the first week of the regular season. He was 18th-round draft pick in 2003, and a college senior at that -- not exactly the sort of credentials that suggest a guy will ever play in the majors.
"I was basically a minor league organizational guy,'' he said.
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But even in that role, he had value. Although he did little offensively in those first few years to get anyone's attention, he was such a good handler of pitchers that he was almost like an extra coach, and he contributed at least in some part to developing several of the organization's promising young arms. Still, although he had climbed from low Single-A to high-A to Double-A by the end of 2006, he had never hit higher than .256 in a season, had never even reached double figures in doubles and had never driven in more than 22 runs.
And then, for some reason, they sent him to the Arizona Fall League that year, a circuit usually reserved for six of an organization's top prospects. Ellis hit .346 for the Mesa Solar Sox that autumn, and after that, things began to change.
He spent another year at Double-A Jacksonville, putting up decent numbers, then moved to Triple-A, where he started hitting in the unglamorous eight hole. He batted .321 and posted an eye-popping .436 on-base percentage in 2008, the best OBP in the organization, and got his first September callup, appearing in thre games and starting one. He was back again last year with the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate, which had moved from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, and had an even better .438 OBP. He got his first midseason callup when the Dodgers briefly went with three catchers, then got another one in September.
So far, he is 1 for 13 in the majors. But for now, for Colletti and Torre, that's kind of beside the point.
"For me, the most important thing at that position is whether a guy can run a game and whether he is a plus defender,'' Colletti said. "If he can do that, that's enough for us, and we believe he can. We have believed that for two years, but he needed to play, and with Russell playing as much as he typically plays, it didn't make much sense to have A.J. Ellis as a backup at 26, 27, 28 years old. It was never that he wasn't capable of playing here.''
In a way that makes perfect sense, Ellis says hitting eighth, with its inherent challenges, is the very thing that has made him a better hitter.
"My Triple-A managers the past two years, Lo Bundy and Tim Wallach, talked to me about how it's my job to make life easy for the pitcher coming to bat behind me,'' Ellis said. "I need to get on first so he can bunt me over, or at least so he can make the last out of an inning instead of leading off the next inning.''
The result is that Ellis learned to be extremely selective at the plate, to the point that he has walked more often than he has struck out each of the past two seasons. That will make him a perfect fit for the Torre-Don Mattingly approach to hitting, a patient style designed to wear opposing pitchers down by driving up their pitch counts early in a game.
A style that is now being preached throughout the Dodgers' minor league system.
"I was fortunate to work with John Moses the last two years,'' Ellis said of the Albuquerque hitting coach. "He really helped me come up with a game plan for hitting at the bottom of the lineup. We built on what we started in '08 and carried that into '09. You learn how to be patient when they're pitching around you, but you also learn that there are times when you need to be aggressive.''
Ellis' big chance might not be a long one. Although Martin's injury is one of the less predictable ones, the early prognosis of four to six weeks would have him missing not much more than the first two weeks of the season, at which point Ellis might be headed right back to the minors. But it's more of a chance than he has ever been given before. It's here, and it's now. And maybe on Monday, when the Dodgers are scheduled to face the San Francisco Giants at Scottsdale Stadium, it won't get rained out.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.