LOS ANGELES -- It’s hard to think of the Los Angeles Dodgers without A.J. Ellis. It’s also hard to think of them paying him more than the $3.5 million he made last season and, now that he’s eligible for arbitration the second time, that’s a risk they may be unwilling to face.
There might be a middle ground. Odds are the Dodgers will not tender Ellis a contract, but that doesn’t mean he’s gone. They could non-tender him and then negotiate with him and subsequently sign him to a lower salary. Maybe as a gesture of good will, they could offer him a two-year deal at a lower average annual value?
Ellis, who dealt with in-season knee surgery and a sprained ankle last year, batted just .191 before his bat came to life in the NLDS, where he hit .538 with a double and home run. He turns 34 in April.
He also played a vital role working with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and the starting pitchers, even on days he didn’t catch. It will be a tough call for new president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, in part because of the role Ellis plays in the clubhouse. One of the few players in the room who didn’t take the superstar route to the majors, he balances out some of the egos with a team-first approach and is accessible to the media, putting the team in a good public light.
One option is to retain Ellis as the backup catcher -- and Clayton Kershaw's personal catcher -- and then pursue a catcher with more pop.
Now that Friedman is running the show rather than outgoing general manager Ned Colletti, it seems more likely the Dodgers would take a run at the top free agent catcher on the market, Russell Martin. In fact it’s hard to fathom not exploring the option.
The Dodgers non-tendered Martin four years ago, making him a free agent and, undoubtedly, creating some bad blood. What’s amazing is that Martin, who started ahead of Ellis as far back as the minor leagues, is two years younger than Ellis.
Martin’s arrival at the gates of free agency is well-timed. He’s coming off a season in which he batted .290 with a .402 on-base percentage and hit fourth and fifth for a contending team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who may make a spirited run at retaining him. The appeal for the Dodgers is that Martin is one of the game’s better defensive catchers -- particularly strong at framing pitches -- and he could help replace the sting of losing Hanley Ramirez's bat.
The worry is that Martin, 32, is seeking a four-year deal, which would take him into his mid-30s, an iffy territory at a position as rigorous as catcher. The fact that he might be the only bona fide starter on the free-agent catching market could send his asking price soaring past $50 million. He also figures to cost the Dodgers a draft pick, as the Pirates will likely give him a qualifying offer.
Unless the Dodgers are simply hoping for a bounce-back season from Ellis, it’s pretty obvious they need to do something about the catching position. Their catchers were 30th in batting average and 29th in OPS and slugging. As rough as Ellis’ season was at the plate, Drew Butera's (.188/.267/.288) was worse. He did, however, catch Josh Beckett's no-hitter and make two appearances on the pitcher’s mound. Those were fun.
Aside from Martin, nobody on the free agent market stands out as a starter, with the possible exception of Geovany Soto, who rated as a good defensive catcher and hit an acceptable .250 in Texas and Oakland. David Ross, A.J. Pierzynski and Gerald Laird are well past their primes and Wil Nieves, Humberto Quintero, Nick Hundley and Ryan Doumit are nothing to get excited about.
The best bet, assuming the Dodgers are willing to spend the money, might be to reunite Martin and Ellis, disproving the notion that you can’t go home again.