Gabe Kapler tries again with Dodgers
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Just how inexperienced is Don Mattingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers new manager who oversaw his first pitchers-and-catchers workout Thursday? Well, the team has one player in camp with more managerial experience than Mattingly.
At a time when he felt certain he was done as a major league player, veteran outfielder Gabe Kapler spent the 2007 season managing the Greenville (S.C.) Drive, a Boston Red Sox affiliate in the Class A South Atlantic League. But as that season wore on, Kapler began to feel increasingly less certain.
He believed his defensive ability in the outfield hadn't gotten back to what it was before the torn Achilles tendon he had suffered two years earlier.
"I didn't have the first-step quickness I needed," Kapler said. "But during the season, I started to feel that coming back. By the end of 2007, I felt I really had a lot more to contribute, both on the field and in the clubhouse."
And so, the well-traveled Kapler came back. He's added three more major league seasons to his career, the past two with the Tampa Bay Rays. Now, after signing a minor league contract with the Dodgers over the winter, Kapler, 35, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, is playing for the team he always wanted to play for.
"I was so motivated at this point in my career to be home," he said. "I'm not going to try to skirt around the fact that this is something I wanted to do for a long time. My boys are 9 and 11 years old now. When it comes down to it, it's more motivating wanting to win and make an impact on a team when you have the opportunity to be around your family."
How long he'll play for the Dodgers is tough to gauge. A quick glance at what few roster spots the Dodgers figure to have open would suggest Kapler is a long shot after a winter in which the club added free-agent outfielders Tony Gwynn Jr. and Marcus Thames and at a time when longtime outfield prospect Xavier Paul is out of minor league options. Add to that the fact Kapler hit a career-worst .210 off the bench for the Rays last season -- something he blames on a mechanical issue he believes he has since overcome -- and the odds would appear to be stacked against him. Kapler isn't thinking much about odds at this point.
"My intention is to prove to my teammates, to Donnie and to [general manager] Ned [Colletti] that this team is better with me and that I have the ability to contribute in the clubhouse and on the field," Kapler said. "I feel like I'm the player I was in 2008 and 2009, not the player I was in 2010."
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Question at catcher
A.J. Ellis spent much of last spring thinking he would at least begin the 2010 season as the Dodgers' starting catcher, but when Russell Martin returned earlier than expected from an abdominal strain, Ellis instead started at Triple-A for the third year in a row.
Last December, when the Dodgers decided to non-tender Martin rather than risk going to arbitration with him, Ellis thought he would begin the 2011 season as at least a major league backup, behind Rod Barajas. But a week later, the Dodgers signed free-agent catcher Dioner Navarro, meaning Ellis again appears destined for Albuquerque despite hitting .278 with a .363 on-base percentage in 44 games at the big league level last year.
"I don't think you can allow yourself to get frustrated," Ellis said. "You just have to realize it's part of the game. Sometimes, it takes three quality major league catchers to get through the year. We saw that last year, and I think we could be right at that spot again. You just always have to be ready."
Ellis, who was vacationing in Mexico with his family when he learned the club had signed Navarro, said there was no communication from the front office after the move.
"No," he said. "And I'll just leave it at that."
The good news for Ellis is if he does begin the season in the minors -- or even if he spends any time in the minors this season -- he will burn his final minor league option. That means the Dodgers won't be able to send him down next year without first passing him through waivers. Given that Ellis plays a premium position and has proven that he has at least adequate big league ability, he would have a strong chance of being claimed by another club if he were to be waived.
For now, Mattingly said there was no reason to meet with Ellis or to reassure him of his value to the organization.
"Right now, we don't know what is going to happen in camp," Mattingly said. "We have a lot of time before Opening Day, so I don't want to get hypothetical."
The Dodgers' first injury of the spring came about 10 minutes into their first workout. Non-roster pitcher Dana Eveland, a six-year big league veteran who probably has only a slim chance of making the club, injured his hamstring running sprints and was taken for an MRI exam.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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