2/11/2013 9:36 P.M. ET
Catcher Ellis won't take solid season for granted
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A.J. Ellis hasn't forgotten those stories written back in the day describing his role as a Minor League journeyman insurance policy when Russell Martin was the Dodgers' All-Star catcher.
Ellis wasn't taken seriously as a prospect by management, as it signed veteran Gary Bennett as the backup instead of giving Ellis a chance. And then the Dodgers signed Danny Ardoin. And then Brad Ausmus. And then Dioner Navarro and Rod Barajas and Hector Gimenez. And then they traded for Tim Federowicz, because they still weren't sold on Ellis. Now Federowicz backs up Ellis.
While the focus as Spring Training opens is understandably on pitchers, the "and catchers" matters to Ellis, who after a solid first season as an everyday Major Leaguer is more legit than any Dodgers official ever expected.
"I was thinking about that the last couple of weeks," said Ellis. "I'm not taking it for granted. The journey was too hard to sit back and think I've arrived. The next thing you know, you're hitting .155 at Double-A. I have to keep pushing with the same intensity.
"That said, it's nice to show up and not have to pass the 'eyeball test,' where everybody sizes up how hard you worked in the offseason. You don't have to open eyes in the first batting-practice session. It's more of a buildup than feeling I have to peak in the first Spring Training game. It's a preparation camp, not a show-me camp."
Ellis was never listed in one of those Top 10 Prospects lists, never considered the catcher of the future. He was an 18th-round Draft pick out of Austin Peay University 10 years before he became an MLB starter. Ellis will be 32 years old in April. He uses four seasons at Triple-A as a reminder.
"More than anything, it doesn't allow me to get comfortable. It lets me know where I was," Ellis said. "I didn't believe in myself either. I do now. I know I don't have a long leash. I've got to be ready to play and lead and be a strong receiver. I proved last year I could handle the bat, showed that I bring more to the table offensively than people expected. It's about persevering. Those Top 10 lists are propaganda."
Ellis hit .270 and finished third on the club with 13 homers (a career high at any level) and 52 RBIs. His keen eye at the plate led to team highs of 65 walks and a .373 on-base percentage. Ellis saw more pitches per at-bat than any hitter in the league. He played so well that backup Matt Treanor rarely left the bench.
Ellis said he's 100 percent physically, fully recovered from minor arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Oct. 8. He was injured in a home-plate collision July 18, but claimed the knee was more responsible for keeping him from doing weight work than any limitation on the field. Ellis said his defense improved steadily, as he cut passed balls from nine in the first half to two in the second half. A 3.30 catcher ERA was third best in the Major Leagues, and he threw out 38 percent of basestealers.
Ellis will make $2 million this year, chump change on a $220 million payroll, but don't shortchange his clubhouse influence just because he doesn't make the big bucks. Teammates voted him the Roy Campanella Award for the player best exemplifying the spirit and leadership of the late Hall of Famer.
Ask for goals and Ellis doesn't reel off home run or RBI targets.
"I want to be stronger behind the plate, better at blocking pitches in the dirt and steal strikes receiving," he said. "I want to be better in plays at the plate with the strong arms we have in the outfield and keep my focus on the ball and not trying to find the runner at the same time."
Ellis said he's eager to catch new starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, while acknowledging the eight established starting pitchers in camp "will be the elephant in the room."
"But I remember springs when we didn't know who the fourth starter was, so this is going to be exciting," Ellis said.
Almost as exciting as the day last October in Milwaukee when Ellis was the wheelman en route to the hospital as his wife, Cindy, delivered daughter Audrey Elizabeth in their car.
"I can tell my other two kids exactly where they were born," said Ellis. "With Audrey, the best I can say is that it was between mile marker 42 and 43ish, not really sure. Or, place of birth -- a Toyota Camry."
Management has made it clear, after loading the roster, the responsibility and accountability now shifts to the team on the field.
"We've had a good case study, with USC football and the Lakers, that it's not only about talent," Ellis said. "We've got to come together and gel as a team. I know the [sabermetrics] guys don't believe in chemistry. Talent does win. But we can all have great individual seasons and wind up in the same place as last year. Team chemistry matters."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.