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.