A.J. Ellis’ Big Opportunity

Obviously, today’s big news is that Russell Martin is going to miss 4-6 weeks with his hip/abdomen/groin/thorax/torso/whatever problem. That number’s likely to change; we don’t know if that means he’s going to require surgery or just rehab, and Joe Torre himself says that he doesn’t know if that timeline is for Martin to be ready to start rehab or to be ready to return to action.

In theory, this sounds disastrous. But is it?

4-6 weeks sounds like a long time. Yet remember, today’s only the 3rd game of the spring. Opening Day on April 5th is just under a month away. If there’s no further complications or timeline changes (and remember, we just don’t know right now) then Martin might only need to miss a week or two of games.

Besides, how upset should we really be to not have him in the lineup? I’m not saying I’m happy about this news - far from it, because I was interested to see if his new bulk would help him bounce back. It’s just that it’s not really as though he was contributing a lot to the team in 2009; I’m not really bemoaning the loss of a .680 OPS as much as you’d think.

So what happens in the interim? I think it’s unlikely that the Dodgers look elsewhere for a catcher unless Martin’s injury proves far more serious. It’s really not worth the trouble if Martin’s only going to miss a small amount of time, and regardless there’s almost no one worth going after anyway. Since Brad Ausmus isn’t going to step in and catch every day, A.J. Ellis would almost certainly get the bulk of the work until Martin returns.

I know there’s a lot of people excited to see Ellis, thanks to his gaudy OBP numbers in the minors (.398 career, .436 and .438 the last two seasons). Over the winter, Ken Gurnick actually went so far as to suggest that Ellis might challenge Martin for playing time this year. Yet despite this, I just don’t have very high hopes for Ellis’ big-league potential.

First, despite the fact that he’s got just 13 MLB plate appearances, let’s not confuse him with a prospect. Ellis turns 29 on April 9, which makes him two years older than Martin. He’s been in the Dodger system for 7 seasons, having had to repeat High-A ball, AA, and AAA. Yet even though he’s been on the farm for so long, he’s played in just 464 games, because he’s only once made it into more than 90 games in a season. That’s actually 106 fewer games than Martin has played in the majors alone.  He’s so highly thought-of that he didn’t even warrant an entry in Memories of Kevin Malone‘s great Prospect Profiles series.

Now, I like a guy who can take a walk, and for his career Ellis has shown that ability, walking 273 times against just 248 strikeouts. Here’s the problem he’s going to run into in the bigs, though: he has no power. Zero. Juan Pierre levels. Ellis has just 17 homers to his name over 7 years, which would be bad enough, except that he played the last two seasons in the hitter’s havens of Las Vegas and Albuquerque. ABQ turned Hector Luna into a .610 slugger last year, when he’d never been over .417 before, and it allowed Dee Brown to hit 19 HR, a number he hadn’t approached in nearly ten years. Ellis somehow didn’t hit a single homer down there last year, which seems absolutely impossible from a man who got 360 total plate appearances.

You might be saying, “well, he’s an emergency fill-in, we’re not looking for him to hit cleanup.” I’d agree with that. It’s just that it’s all well and good that Ellis can lay off the pitches of AAA retreads who are terrified of serving up a fat pitch at high altitude to rack up those OBP numbers. But what’s going to happen in the bigs? If he can’t hit a ball out of Albuquerque, pitchers at the big-league level are going to have nothing to fear from him. That means he’s going to be seeing a lot of strikes, and he’s shown no reason to think that he can do a lot of damage to those pitches in the zone. Without all those walks, that OBP is going to drop, and quickly.

Questions about his offense aside, Ellis does have a reputation as a very good backstop and handler of pitchers, and maybe that’s all you’ll need as a short-term fill-in. Since there’s no good external option, Ausmus isn’t capable of playing every day, and Lucas May probably isn’t ready to jump from AA to the bigs, it’s not that I have a problem with playing Ellis. Giving the options available, he’s the right (only) choice, even if that choice isn’t a great one.

That said, Casey Blake needs to get off to a very quick start, because that’s the only way this team is going to be drowning out the Carlos Santana cries that are sure to happen.

Update: Dylan Hernandez is reporting that Martin insists he’ll be ready for Opening Day. We’ll see; players aren’t usually the most accurate source of information about their own health. The last thing we need is for him to try to rush back, though, and risk exacerbating the injury.

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  1. [...] hit (Ellis) and a guy we know couldn’t hit and was over 40 (Ausmus) a smart idea? Back on March 7, when Martin was injured in camp and Ellis looked like he’d be the Opening Day catcher, I [...]

  2. [...] few weeks of the season. Ellis was preparing to start the year as the main backstop. In March, I put down some thoughts on how that would go: Now, I like a guy who can take a walk, and for his career Ellis has shown that ability, walking [...]