Phillies

Despite catching depth, bringing back A.J. Ellis would make sense for Phillies

Despite catching depth, bringing back A.J. Ellis would make sense for Phillies

With a starting catcher coming off a powerful season and two catching prospects pushing their way toward the majors, the Phillies are in an enviable position behind the plate.

And yet they still have interest in bringing back 35-year-old A.J. Ellis, according to ESPN's Jayson Stark.

"The Phillies have interest in bringing back AJ Ellis as a catcher/leader/unofficial coach. He has interest in returning. Stay tuned," Stark wrote Tuesday night.

Some might greet this news with confusion — why sign a veteran backup to Cameron Rupp when either Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp could fill that role in 2017? 

But it would make some sense for the Phils to bring Ellis back in that role. He fit in well late last season after being traded here by the Dodgers for Carlos Ruiz. In 11 games with the Phillies, Ellis went 10 for 32 (.313) with three doubles and a homer. 

Ellis has never been known for his bat, though. He's made his reputation as a solid game-caller who pitchers love to work with. In his seven starts with the Phillies, their starting pitchers had a 2.44 ERA. That's not much of a sample size, but Phillies starters did have a 4.06 ERA in games he didn't start after arriving.

With Ruiz and Ryan Howard now gone, the Phillies don't have much in the way of Veteran Presence™. The average of their 40-man roster is between 23 and 24 years old, and the only players over 29 even projected to make the team are Jeremy Hellickson (29), Howie Kendrick (33) and reliever Pat Neshek (36).

Do you need veterans in the clubhouse? Not necessarily. But it's helpful to have someone like Ellis around when a pitcher or hitter is slumping. He was here just a few weeks when he and Howard called a players-only meeting in September.

More important than the concept of veteran leadership, though, is the development of Alfaro and Knapp. Neither is ready just yet to be an everyday catcher in the majors, so it makes more sense to let them both play regularly in the minors. Alfaro is expected to make the jump to Triple A and be the regular catcher at Lehigh Valley in 2017. Knapp, who made the Triple A All-Star Game despite having a mediocre year, should get some opportunities behind the plate, at first base and at DH for the IronPigs.

Letting both young catchers develop further is a wiser approach than having one play two games per week behind Rupp in the majors. So if the Phillies can bring back Ellis, they could bide some time for Alfaro and Knapp while also keeping one of the few experienced voices in their clubhouse.

Plus, it's not like Ellis will put a dent in their payroll. He made $4.5 million last season and could likely be signed for a figure close to that — or perhaps even lower.

Healthy Jerad Eickhoff says, 'The sky is the limit'

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AP Images

Healthy Jerad Eickhoff says, 'The sky is the limit'

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jerad Eickhoff is an important man in this Phillies season. He needs to be closer to the guy who pitched to a 3.65 ERA in 197 1/3 innings in 2016 than the one who had a 4.71 ERA in 128 innings last season.

It all starts with good health. Eickhoff, 27, missed time with an upper-back strain and a nerve issue near his right shoulder last season.

He is healthy now and has made a tweak in his mechanics to ease pressure on his shoulder. He made his spring debut with two hitless, scoreless innings in a 6-0 exhibition win over the University of Tampa on Thursday (more on the game here). Eickhoff threw 17 pitches, 14 of which were strikes. He struck out two, walked none and hit a batter. 

“No matter what game it is that you pitch in, you get that intensity, there’s a hitter in the box, you still get butterflies being back at it,” Eickhoff said. “Today was a big day, facing some competition. The live batting practice was checking off the first box. A game setting was kind of the second box, so I think the sky is the limit from here. I feel great.”

Eickhoff developed a mechanical flaw last season as his body would often fall toward first base after delivering the ball. That put pressure on his shoulder. He has tried to correct the flaw this winter by holding his glove a little higher before he releases the ball. That helps him get going toward home plate.

If healthy, Eickhoff will be in the starting rotation. (Former bench coach Larry Bowa is high on him). But he’s taking nothing for granted.

“I try to approach every spring like I’m trying to win a job,” Eickhoff said. “I have something to prove every year.”

Notes
• Andrew Knapp caught and batted leadoff. He worked a walk to lead off the game and that impressed manager Gabe Kapler. Kapler advised not to read into batting order positions this early in camp. 

“These are practice settings,” he said.

• The Phillies play their Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon against the Blue Jays in Dunedin. Rotation candidates Nick Pivetta and Mark Leiter Jr. are expected to get some work. Non-roster invite Francisco Rodriguez, he of the 437 career saves, could also get an inning.

Future closer? Power-armed Seranthony Dominguez dazzles in opener

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USA Today Images

Future closer? Power-armed Seranthony Dominguez dazzles in opener

CLEARWATER, Fla. — This was a nice little glimpse of the future.

Seven of the eight pitchers used by the Phillies in Thursday’s 6-0 exhibition win over the University of Tampa were prospects who likely need a little more time in the minors, but could someday be mainstays in Philadelphia.

Jerad Eickhoff started and pitched two scoreless innings. After him, prospects Jose Taveras, Tom Eshelman, Franklyn Kilome, Enyel De Los Santos, Seranthony Dominguez, Cole Irvin and Ranger Suarez kept the shutout intact. None of the Phillies’ pitchers walked a batter, though Eickhoff did hit one.

“No walks, that’s fairly unusual for spring training,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It was like Command City. Guys were on top of it.”

Kapler singled out Dominguez, a strong-bodied, power-armed, 23-year-old right-hander who earned a spot on the 40-man roster in November. Dominguez allowed a leadoff single in the seventh then came back with three swinging strikeouts, all on high-80s sliders.

“He maintained his composure, had electric stuff and the bravado of a seasoned veteran,” Kapler said.

Dominguez, signed out of the Dominican Republic for $25,000 in 2012, touched 100 mph with his fastball as a starter in the Florida State League early last season. He ended up missing time with biceps tendinitis, but is healthy now. The Phillies have reduced his pitch mix from four to three (fastball, slider, changeup) and he will convert to the bullpen, where he profiles as a potential closer, this season. He is likely to open at Double A Reading. Don’t rule out seeing him in Philadelphia later this season if all goes well.

“As a bullpen guy, he could be a quick mover,” general manager Matt Klentak said.

“He has a top-of-the-scale fastball,” director of player development Joe Jordan said. “He has a chance to really dominate in the late innings.”