Mark Ellis Departs, And The Infield Takes Shape

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Over the weekend, a few moves began to clarify the 2014 Dodger infield. Juan Uribe agreed to return, putting an end to the nightmare scenarios at third base, and Mark Ellis reportedly has agreed to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals, giving them an insurance policy for young second baseman Kolten Wong.

We briefly thought the Dodgers might be exploring the same plan for Alexander Guerrero, though it never seemed all that likely after Ellis’ option was declined — a move I was unsure about at the time and like even less now. Anyway, now the team at least has some clarity on next steps in their infield: Adrian Gonzalez, Guerrero (probably), Hanley Ramirez, and Uribe are your starters, and your backups are… uh… well… hmm.

I hardly need to tell you that there’s a whole lot of risk in that quartet, really. Gonzalez is solid, but Guerrero is beyond unproven, Ramirez can’t be counted on for 162 games, and Uribe shouldn’t be. Nick Punto was a godsend last year, and there’s no one in the current organization who can fill any of those roles. (No, not Dee Gordon, or Justin Sellers.) Scott Van Slyke would seem to have a head start on a bench spot as a 1B/OF righty bat, but the 2B/SS/3B backup spots are just barren.

I’m sure we’ll hear about Eric Chavez, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Reynolds, and Michael Young until all four are signed somewhere, and each are varying degrees of acceptable as bench pieces, but obviously none can play up the middle, and that’s what’s going to be difficult. How do you find someone who is decent enough to play semi-regularly at both second and short, but who would be okay with being a backup? This is Brendan Harrisdream scenario, but that’s only a step above Gordon for me. Unfortunately, the free agent market is full of replacement-level no-hit, okay-field guys like Alexi Casilla and Paul Janish.

There’s just so little depth that all 30 teams don’t even have acceptable starters at both positions, so it’s difficult to find good backups there. That likely means that we’ll all be completely disappointed by whomever it is; then again, I suppose none of us were that excited by Punto either, and he turned out well.

What If Mark Ellis Returned For Some Reason?

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There’s still a fair bit of uncertainty in the Dodger infield. Alexander Guerrero is probably going to play second, but he might play somewhere else, or he might not be ready to be in the bigs at all, and Hanley Ramirez is probably going to play short, unless he plays third, in which case they need to find a shortstop, or otherwise find a third baseman, and…

…well, you get the point. So it’s not a surprise that the Dodgers are absolutely going to acquire at least one more infielder, and likely more if you consider that they don’t really have a bench right now, and that means all options are on the table.

That includes, according to Ken Rosenthal, the possibility of bringing back Mark Ellis. With the usual “sources!” caveat, it makes some sense; Ellis is hardly exciting, but he’s a known quantity, one who would come relatively cheaply compared to other options, and while there’s zero upside there, he’s not going to kill you either. One would hope the Dodgers could find a more interesting option, but if not, well, fine.

There’s just one issue there. Why not just exercise Ellis’ 2014 option when you had the chance? As we discussed at the time, it seemed like a good way to hedge your bets, keeping a backup plan around in case nothing else panned out, and then giving you the chance to trade him in the spring if there was no spot for him. Now that he’s on the open market, you can possibly see teams giving him a second year, and probably for more in total than the $5.75m he would have made under the option. More to the point, he’s officially a free agent, and signed free agents can’t be dealt until June 15 without their permission. Maybe Ellis would consent to a move, but it seems unlikely that he’d come back expecting to be dealt.

Again, it’s just conjecture at this point, and I imagine it’s more likely Ellis goes to a team that badly has a need for an everyday second baseman, like Kansas City or Toronto or Baltimore. So maybe this is nothing. But if it is something, it does seem like an odd strategy for the team to have chosen.

2013 Dodgers in Review #6: 2B Mark Ellis

90topps_markellis.270/.323/.351 480pa 6hr .300 wOBA 1.8 fWAR C+

2013 in brief: Gave you the standard “mediocre offense, good defense, ow my leg” season you’d expect.

2014 status: Free agent after the Dodgers declined his option.

Previous: 2012

******

One of the flaws of this grading system is that when a guy has exactly the season you expect him to, a grade in the C range feels unfair. Mark Ellis had exactly — exactly — the year you would have anticipated, and while there was value in that, it also means he didn’t give you any more than you’d think. So, C+ it is.

And when I say exactly, I do mean that. Seriously, last year at this time I reviewed his 2012 and said, “injury-prone veteran – wait for it – got injured and missed about six weeks, but generally provided quality defense and adequate offense,” and damned if I couldn’t just stick with that for 2013 as well.

Once again, Ellis got off to a very nice start — after hitting two homers among four hits in New York on April 23, he was hitting .348/.370/.470 — and once again, it was absolutely unsustainable (.396 BABIP) and soon to be interrupted by a leg injury for approximately the 19th year in a row. This time, it was an injured quad on April 26, but that’s when the weirdness began. Despite the fact that similar injuries usually took weeks or months to heal, the Dodgers insisted he’d be fine and kept him on the active roster. They kept him there, absurdly, and it became a morbid daily joke:

April 30:

Mark Ellis remains active yet probably unavailable. (Why no move has been made there yet is just beyond me.)

May 1:

Of course, I guess I don’t know any longer what is worthy of a disabled list trip. This is the fifth consecutive game that Mark Ellis has sat out with his quad pull, and it’s getting a little absurd here. He’s still feeling pain while running — which is, you know, somewhat important for a professional baseball player — and again the team is a man down.

Tomorrow, again, is a day off, but I cannot imagine that this can go longer than that. If you haven’t figured out in another 48 hours from now if Ellis can play, than you have your answer: he can’t.

May 3:

Ellis Watch: Day 7.

Tonight marks the seventh consecutive day that Mark Ellis is active yet out of the lineup (including yesterday’s day off) as he tries to overcome the quad he injured last Friday, and I’ve just run out of explanation here. Yes, he can be placed on the disabled list retroactively if they decide to — and they still might, because a move will have to be made Monday to get Chris Capuano off the disabled list — but that’s not going to get the team back a full week of a playing shorthanded, is it?

May 4:

That, of course, is the case partially because Mark Ellis is still unavailable, on the eighth day since his injury last Friday, and the fact that a team with such injury problems insists on playing a man down for over a week for this is just insane.

May 5:

Another day, and more of the same. This is now the ninth day in a row (eighth game) that Mark Ellis remains active yet unavailable — and the third day in a row that Adrian Gonzalez was originally in the lineup before being scratched.

It’s truly, absolutely, indefensible at this point, and I’ve run out of ways to explain it.

And finally, mercifully, on May 6, a full 10 days after he was hurt, during a period in which Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez were dealing with injuries of their own, he was finally placed on the disabled list. I realize we’ve veered way off from an Ellis review to a Ned Colletti one at this point, but that’s what I remember most about his season.

Ellis returned shortly thereafter, but other than a few highlights — a walkoff against the Yankees on July 31, and his bowling ball takeout of two Cardinals in NLCS Game 5

…it was a typical Ellis season, hitting only .265/.319/.325 against righties, which didn’t stop Don Mattingly from hitting him second more often than was warranted. Ellis is what he is, and that’s not a bad thing; it’s just not an exciting thing.

With Alexander Guerrero in the mix, Ellis is no longer needed, and I’m happy to see someone with more upside around. (Though I certainly saw the argument for hanging on to his option.) Still, for approximately $7.7m, Ellis contributed 4.5 WAR in his time with Los Angeles, and that’s not a bad return on investment at all. So long, Law Firm.

******

Next! Can you believe Skip Schumaker is actually getting lumped in as a second baseman here?

So Long, Chris Capuano & Mark Ellis

capuano_2013-05-24Well, so much for that. According to the Dodgers, the team has declined the 2014 options on both Mark Ellis and Chris Capuano. We knew that would happen to Capuano, but there were defensible reasons to wonder if Ellis might stick. Either or both could still return, of course, and the first five days after the World Series are reserved for teams to exclusively negotiate with their own players, but after that they are free to the world.

The Dodgers now have 33 on the 40-man roster, which includes the five who were on the 60-day disabled list and removes the 12 who became free agents today.

The Dodgers Probably Won’t Exercise Mark Ellis’ Option, But…

markellis_homer_newyork_2013-04-23We’re not all that far from getting to Mark Ellis‘ 2013 review, and when we do, you’ll read about how he had the most Mark Ellis year ever — solid defense, mediocre offense, and his yearly leg injury. Depending on how quickly I get through Ramon Hernandez, Drew Butera, and Adrian Gonzalez, that review may or may not be up prior to the Saturday 11:59pm ET deadline for making a decision on team options.

For a while, I’ve considered it more or less a given that the Dodgers would decline their $5.75m 2014 option, instead choosing to give him a $1m buyout. That’s because he’s going to be 37, he’s no longer got any upside, you absolutely know he’ll miss a month or so with an injury, and the presence of Alexander Guerrero means that the Dodgers are ready to look in another direction. Sitting here today, I think it’s more likely than not that they will in fact decline it, though without nearly as much certainty as Chris Capuano‘s getting declined.

Still, a part of me increasingly wonders if it’s worth exercising it. No, not to be a bench player, as so many have suggested — Ellis can’t play any other positions and offers little power or speed, so there’s not a whole lot of reason to keep him around if he’s not playing every day. But you could argue that there’s a reason to hedge your bets for now and worry about it in March, really.

As much as we like Guerrero, it’s so important to remember that we have no idea what he is. Because of how well Hyun-jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig worked out, I think Dodger fans have an unreasonable expectation that every expensive international signing is going to be a star. And maybe he is… but maybe he’s Hiroyuki Nakajima or Tsuyoshi Nishioka, two recent Japanese middle infielders who signed for millions and either flamed out or couldn’t even make the team.

Guerrero is more highly thought of than those two — much more expensive, too — and so I’m not all that concerned he’ll implode so badly. But, depending on how he looks in winter ball, he may need to take the Puig path and spend some time in the minors first, and that’s not something we’ll likely know until spring training. And if you’ve cut Ellis loose and decide Guerrero isn’t ready, then what? There’s not a great backup plan, and no one good is likely to sign knowing they have days or weeks at most.

By keeping Ellis, you alleviate that worry, and then if you do decide that Guerrero is ready, it’s probably not that difficult to find a taker for Ellis in March, whether to a team that never filled their second base or one that suffers an injury. For all of Ellis’ obvious deficiencies, if the Dodgers eat part of the deal and make him a $3m player next year, that’s a very reasonable cost for someone who can get you one to two wins. If he hits the open market, it’s not that hard to think he gets at least that or more, possibly for two years. (You also keep open the incredibly unlikely possibility of moving Hanley Ramirez to third and Guerrero to short if an acceptable third base solution isn’t found, but again, that’s extremely difficult to see happening.)

The downside there is that it puts Ellis in something of an awkward position, being retained by the team all winter knowing that he might not be likely to actually be on the club, and since Ellis is very well-respected, the team may be hesitant to do that to him. (It’d also raise the possibility of a deal not being struck and Ellis taking up a bench spot, which isn’t very efficient.)

Again, this is probably not all that likely of a scenario, but one worth considering. We’ll know for sure by Saturday night.