A.J. Ellis

Phillies likely to carry rookie backup catcher in 2017

Phillies likely to carry rookie backup catcher in 2017

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The likelihood of the Phillies going with a rookie backup catcher in 2017 increased dramatically when the Miami Marlins signed free agent A.J. Ellis on Wednesday.

Ellis spent the final month of the 2016 season with the Phillies after coming over from the Dodgers in the Carlos Ruiz trade. Ellis, 35, got high marks for his work with the Phillies’ young pitching staff and the Phils had some interest in bringing him back. The interest, however, was complicated by a tight 40-man roster, which already includes three catchers — starter Cameron Rupp and minor-league prospects Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp.

With Ellis out of the picture, the Phillies will likely use either Alfaro or Knapp as the backup catcher in 2017. Knapp spent a full year at Triple A in 2016 and could end up being the guy as Alfaro moves to Triple A for another year of seasoning.

General manager Matt Klentak spoke earlier this week of the possibility of going with a rookie at backup catcher.

“Andrew Knapp just finished his age 25 season in Triple A,” Klentak said. “He has a full year of at-bats in Triple A. At some point for both he and Alfaro, we’re going to have to find out what those guys can do at the big-league level. During the 2017 season, we’ll have to find out — not just about those two guys — but others.”

It’s not all that surprising that Ellis ended up with the Marlins on a one-year deal worth $2.5 million. He played for Marlins manager Don Mattingly during the latter’s time as manager of the Dodgers.

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.

Report: Dodgers trade Carlos Ruiz to Mariners

Report: Dodgers trade Carlos Ruiz to Mariners

Carlos Ruiz has landed in the American League before Ryan Howard.

After a nice little run with the Dodgers, Chooch will move on to the AL for the first time. The Mariners are set to acquire Ruiz from the Dodgers in exchange for left-handed pitcher Vidal Nuno. FanRag's Jon Heyman first reported the trade; the L.A. Times' Andy McCullough was the first to report Nuno's involvement.

After being traded by the Phillies to the Dodgers on Aug. 25 for backup catcher A.J Ellis and a pair of minor-leaguers — pitcher Tommy Bergjans and outfielder Joey Curletta — Ruiz played a role for L.A. down the stretch. He had a .350 on-base percentage in 40 regular-season plate appearances, then went 2 for 4 with a pinch-hit homer and three RBIs in the Dodgers' Divisional Series win over the Nationals.

Ruiz, who turns 38 in January, has a $4.5 million club option for 2017. The Mariners clearly see him as a stop-gap catcher who can help their young pitchers, develop a rapport with Felix Hernandez and provide more offense than Chris Iannetta or Mike Zunino, who both hit .210 or lower last season. 

The interest in Ruiz in recent months just goes to show his value in the game, even at 38. He provides top-notch game-calling, discipline at the plate and the ability to hit between .260 and .270. At a position as starved for offense as catcher, that'll keep you in the majors. 

Ruiz also controlled the running game in 2016 better than ever before, throwing out a National League-best 42 percent of base stealers. (His career rate had previously been 27 percent.)

Chooch just can't be relied on to be a team's primary catcher at this point — since 2013, he's averaged 88 games per season. But considering all it cost the M's was a journeyman lefty swingman in Nuno, shrewd deal by Seattle.