Could the Catching Actually Get Worse?

When it was announced on April 14th that Brad Ausmus was going to have back surgery after playing in just game, most of us expected that we’d seen the last of him, save for perhaps a few token appearances in September before he retires, as he’s widely expected to do. However, apparently he’s progressed more quickly than anyone thought, to the point where he’s looking to start a minor-league rehab stint after the All-Star break.

I have all the respect in the world for Ausmus, who’s known as a solid teammate and a future managerial candidate, but is that really going to be a good thing for the Dodgers? Ausmus (career .670 OPS) was obviously never much of an offensive force even in his prime, so you can imagine what he’s going to be like at 41 and coming off major back surgery.

There’s no point in considering that the Dodgers are going to do anything other than demote A.J. Ellis and activate Ausmus once he’s ready, so I won’t even waste my breath. It’s just that a backstop combo of Martin and Ausmus may be the most impotent in the big leagues. It’s been a little over a year since I took an in-depth look into Martin’s struggles, and he hasn’t shown any improvement; his .245/.351/.326 line this season nicely mirrors his 2009 of .250/.352/.329. Behind the plate, catcher defense is notoriously hard to quantify, though I doubt you’ll find many who will say he’s improved, as he’s already made more errors in 2010 than in all of 2009.

Whether or not Martin should be non-tendered before he gets an arbitration bump from his $5m 2010 salary is a conversation for the off-season, so the focus should be on what can be done right now. Steve Dilbeck in the LA Times notes what I’ve been saying since at least 2007, and that’s that Joe Torre should stop being so stubborn and rest Martin more often.

I agree, but not for the same reason. It might be too late to think that a few days of rest is going to make Martin turn back into what he was in 2007; I’m more inclined to believe that the damage is irreversible. No, I’d rather just see what A.J. Ellis can do if given the chance. I’m not pretending that Ellis is some sort of offensive force, of course – he’s very clearly not, and his .200 BA isn’t very impressive either.

Just remember, though. Martin’s been dreadful for nearly two full years, and Ellis gets to start about twice a month, making it hard to judge him. If you’re asking me if I don’t think he could manage to hit .245 with 18 RBI through half a season, with superior defense to Martin, well, that’s not a very high barrier to hurdle. I’m not even asking for a full-fledged job share, but is it really too much to ask that Martin start no more than five days a week?

Unfortunately, the ship has probably sailed regarding trading Martin for any sort of reasonable return. As much as I’d love to get some pitching back in return for some other team dealing with his salary, you really would have to get value back in order to offset the PR nightmare it would be, and it’s not very likely that any other team is eager to do that.

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If you’re wondering why I didn’t post about the All-Star game selections, it’s because they always are and have been a complete joke. I usually give the fans a pass for selecting big names who may not be the best choices, because for the fans it should be about who they want to watch – and even they did reasonably well this year. But it’s hard to put much stock into any process that allows Charlie Manuel to choose Jose Reyes, “his guy” Ryan Howard, and the completely baffling selection of Omar Infante while far more deserving players like Joey Votto, Rafael Furcal, Hong-Chih Kuo, and every San Diego pitcher watch from home. The process is broken, and the fact that this has any bearing on the games that count in the World Series is something of an atrocity.

Let me put it this way: I care about baseball more now, at 28, than I have at any other point in my life (clearly, since I waste so much of my time writing this blog every day), yet I found the All-Star game far more entertaining at 13. Now, I just see it as a firestorm of controversy that just interrupts the season.

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Jon Weisman with two great reads that I couldn’t possibly agree with more: that when Manny returns from the DL, Garret Anderson needs to leave while Xavier Paul stays; and that the greatness of Kuo is tempered only by the terrifying fact that Torre is using him more than ever.

Back Surgery for Brad Ausmus

Jon at Dodger Thoughts passes along the news:

Brad Ausmus’ 41st birthday today comes with some bad news. The Dodgers have announced that Ausmus will have surgery Thursday to address a herniated disc, keeping him on the disabled list until at least “late this summer,” the team said. Ausmus is expected to retire after this season.

At the risk of sounding callous, this isn’t exactly the most horrible news in the world, is it? We love Ausmus as a sort of player-coach, but the emphasis is squarely on “coach” in that equation, since he’s not contributing all that much in the field. If you can get back a 40-man spot, give A.J. Ellis the backup job that he deserves at this point, and still keep Ausmus in the locker room (since you assume that he’s not the type to cut off all contact with the club) for advice to pitchers and catchers, is that really all that terrible?

That said, Ausmus has been nothing but class, so it’d be sad to see his long career end with one April game. Should he be physically able to, it’d be great to see him make it back for September action, before retiring to (hopefully) replace Rich Honeycutt as pitching coach. Or, maybe even slide in as bench coach once Torre departs?

Brad Ausmus to DL, A.J. Ellis Recalled

Official Dodgers Twitter:

For first time in 17 years, Brad Ausmus is headed to DL with piched nerve in back. AJ Ellis recalled.

It can’t be surprising that a 40-year-old catcher tweaked his back, but it’s impressive that this is the first time he’s ever put it there. Ausmus went 1-4 with a double in his only start of the season on Thursday; Ellis went 1-4 with a walk in his only AAA action thus far.

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.

Getting the Band Back Together: Ausmus Returning

Big day on the unimportant signing front… Dylan Hernandez tweets:

The Dodgers have agreed to a new deal with backup catcher Brad Ausmus, according to a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Part of me would have liked to have seen A.J. Ellis get a crack, but I can’t really argue with this too much. Backup catchers are basically a dime-a-dozen, and for what Ausmus lacks on the field, he may have made up for in resurrecting Guillermo Mota. Really, if Russell Martin doesn’t turn it around, it’s not going to make a bit of difference who his backup is.

That said, I’m interested to see the salary; Ausmus made $1m last year and I’d be surprised if the Dodgers would spend more than that.

Update: Hernandez answers that question with his next tweet:

Ausmus’ deal with the Dodgers includes a mutual option for 2011. He will earn a base salary of $850k this year.