GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The planets finally aligned this winter for A.J. Ellis. He was out of options and the Dodgers were out of money.
Two outs and Ellis is in as the Dodgers starting catcher. Management decided $4 million was too expensive to bring back Rod Barajas, so it went cheap, if not young. The starting job was given to the 30-year-old Ellis (he'll earn $490,000), and veteran backup Matt Treanor was brought in to do what he does.
Does Ellis have the goods to make this work?
"The Dodgers want to know that and part of me wants to know what I can do," said Ellis. "I've never really had the chance. I played the last month of 2010 and feel I did a good job, but there is a rhythm to playing every day, a consistency that I've enjoyed in the Minor Leagues. I like to believe I'm honest with myself. I feel I can do it, I'm confident I can do it. But do I know? I won't know until the games start."
This is Ellis' 10th professional season. He was drafted out of Austin Peay State University in the 18th round in 2003 and has seen limited Major League action each of the last four seasons.
Offensively, he's known for his defense. In 206 Major League at-bats, he has a .269 average and only a .330 slugging percentage, but an impressive .360 on-base percentage.
So, no, he's not the next Mike Piazza. In the front office, Ellis was viewed as a backup. As recently as last summer, the club acquired Boston prospect Tim Federowicz, a sign it wasn't satisfied with Ellis as the catcher of the future, or the present.
Treanor spent 10 years in the Minor Leagues before his first callup and has never opened a spring as a starter. Frustrated with being overlooked, he once asked Minor League pitching coach Rick Mahler, "When do you know it's time to hang it up?"
"He laughed and said, 'When nobody will give you a uniform,'" Treanor said. "It's not something you accept as a defeatist, but you have to realize you live in the here and now. You can complain and be a malcontent or embrace the situation."
Ellis embraces his situation as well. He said he enjoys the challenge of batting eighth, helping turn over the order to get more chances for the bigger bats.
"I understand that defense is first at that position and that's where my strengths are," he said. "My No. 1 job is the relationship with the pitching staff, calling the game, being prepared to catch a good game behind the plate. That's what Donnie [Mattingly] asks for.
"Anything I do offensive is a bonus, but that doesn't mean I stop working on hitting. I'm going to be the same hitter I've been. There's no magic formula that's going to make me a power hitter. There won't be any big surprise. A mammoth number of home runs won't show up out of nowhere."
There were times Ellis tried to make himself more than a singles and doubles hitter. No more.
"I can't become something I'm not, but I can perfect who I am," he said. "You've got to know your identity. I got to the point where I tired of trying to impress people. Kersh [Clayton Kershaw] and I have a motto -- no regrets. Do everything you can to be the best you can be, then no regrets. The greatest thing about this coaching staff is they know who I am and what I bring."
Mattingly compared Ellis to Jamey Carroll in that the more Ellis is seen, the more he's appreciated.
"That's the kind of guy that's always got to keep fighting," Mattingly said. "You're always looking for something different. He's not going to hit 30 homers and knock your socks off. But [third-base coach Tim Wallach] has seen him as much as anybody and said the guy's a winner. He's a guy you hate to sell short. Rod moved on. Federowicz, we didn't think he was ready. A.J. is always talked about for his defense, for calling a game. Right now we'll go with the plan."
Kershaw, the Cy Young winner, is fine with the plan.
"It's good to know you have a catcher who won't get outworked by anybody," Kershaw said. "He's prepared and he cares about how you do and takes it personally. You want a catcher to live and die with every pitch you throw. And his hitting is underrated. I wouldn't be surprised if he hits .280. He might not hit 30 homers, but what catchers do?"
Ellis knows that part of the reason he's getting a chance now is that double-edged sword of being out of options.
"The Dodgers do a good job of creating depth in the organization," said Ellis, who has been mostly Triple-A insurance the past four years. "As a player with options in the past, I've been the guy in Triple-A who provided depth for the Major League club. Now I'm ready for the Major Leagues and I'm not there for depth anymore."
If the Dodgers try to send him to the Minor Leagues again, he first must clear waivers and that probably wouldn't happen.
"I feel like I proved the last couple of years that I'm at the very least a way above average backup catcher at the Major League level, based on the year I had and the contributions I made to winning games," he said. "I know I've proved that to hopefully every Major League club."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.