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.

Donald Trump declines invitation to throw out 1st pitch on opening day

Donald Trump declines invitation to throw out 1st pitch on opening day

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals say President Donald Trump has declined an invitation to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before their game on opening day.

A spokeswoman for the baseball team said Tuesday that the White House said Trump would not be at next week's game at Nationals Park against the Miami Marlins because of a scheduling conflict.

Washington hosts Miami next Monday afternoon.

President Barack Obama threw the ceremonial first pitch at the Nationals' opener in 2010, marking the 100th anniversary of a presidential pitch to start the season. William Howard Taft first did it on April 14, 1910.

Rays: Acquire former Phillie Bourjos from White Sox
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Tampa Bay Rays have bolstered their outfield depth, acquiring speedy Peter Bourjos from the Chicago White Sox for cash or a player to be named.

The deal Tuesday potentially provides the Rays with a right-handed hitting backup for Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.

Bourjos hit .251 with five homers and 23 RBIs in 123 games with the Philadelphia Phillies last season. He signed a minor league contract with the White Sox on Jan. 30 and batted .313 in 19 spring training games.

The 29-year-old has also played for the Los Angeles Angels and St. Louis Cardinals over seven seasons.

The White Sox also announced left-handed pitchers Cory Luebke and Matt Purke were assigned to minor league camp.

Indians: IF Ramirez signs 5-year deal
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Cleveland Indians signed versatile infielder Jose Ramirez to a five-year, $26 million contract.

Ramirez's deal includes club options for the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

The sides agreed to the deal last week and Ramirez passed his physical to finalize a contract Tuesday that locks up one of Cleveland's core players for the future. The Indians have also had talks with All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor this spring about a long-term deal.

The 24-year-old Ramirez had a breakout season in 2016, when he helped the Indians win their first AL pennant since 1997.

In his first major league season, Ramirez batted .312 with 46 doubles, 11 home runs, 76 RBIs and 22 steals. He played four positions and hit in every spot in Cleveland's batting order, picking up the offensive slack after left fielder Michael Brantley was limited to just 11 games following right shoulder surgery.

Phillies 2017 betting guide: Individual player over-unders

Phillies 2017 betting guide: Individual player over-unders

With less than a week until opening day, let's take a look at some Phillies over-unders for the 2017 season, courtesy of Bovada:

Maikel Franco: O/U .265 BA, 24.5 HR, 85.5 RBIs
Franco hit .255 with 25 home runs and 88 RBIs last season, his first full year in the majors.

Those weren't bad stats for a 23-year-old, but Franco fell short of the lofty expectations set for him by the Phillies and their fans. There was a lot of "future MVP" talk before last season, as well as an endorsement from Mike Schmidt that Franco has a chance to be a better defensive third baseman than Schmidt himself was.

Advice: I'd go under .265, over 24.5 HR and over 85.5 RBIs.

The reasoning? I just think Franco is, long-term, going to be a .260ish hitter. There are legitimate flaws in his swing, approach and, at times, his concentration. Franco gave away far too many at-bats last season, and while I do think he learned from that, I don't think he's going to, within a year, significantly improve upon his ability to lay off breaking balls low and out of the zone.

Franco isn't a fast runner, either, so infield hits will be hard to come by.

The homers and RBIs, however, seem like safe bets to go over. Franco had more homers and RBIs than Vegas' projection with less lineup protection last season. And his power is real enough that I don't see him finishing a full season with fewer than 25 homers.

With a 1-2-3 of Cesar Hernandez, Howie Kendrick and Odubel Herrera, Franco's RBI opportunities should be plentiful.

Tommy Joseph: O/U 24.5 HR, 70.5 RBIs
I'm going under on both.

Joseph hit 21 home runs last season in just 347 plate appearances. That's a full-season pace of 32 HR. But that's not how baseball works -- think about how many times over the years we looked at Darin Ruf's numbers in limited time and extrapolated them over a full year.

Now, Joseph and Ruf are different players. Joseph is a better hitter, simple and plain. He has a better idea at the plate, and midway through last season Joseph showed an ability to adjust. There was a little over a week there when he couldn't catch up to any above-average fastballs. From June 27-July 3, Joseph went 0 for 16 and struck out four times in a game in Arizona. It made some start to wonder if he was just a flash in the pan.

But Joseph responded by going 14 for his next 28 with five homers and two doubles.

My rationale for going under with Joseph's HR and RBI numbers in 2017: 

• He's been injury-prone throughout his career so a season-long over bet doesn't feel safe. 

• Pitchers always adjust to a hitter in the hitter's second season.

• The Phillies have multiple players who can play first base, so I don't expect Joseph to start, say, 140 games. When he's slumping, the Phils could do something like move Kendrick to first base and start Aaron Altherr in left field. Or they could put Brock Stassi (assuming he makes the team) at first against a tough righty.

Odubel Herrera: O/U .280 BA, 22.5 steals
I'm easily taking the over on both. 

What has Herrera done through two years to make us think he won't reach .280? He hit .297 as a rookie and .286 last season, and if anything those two years felt like less than his potential, not more. I don't think Herrera's going to hit .330 this year, but I could definitely see a .310 in his near future as he continues to grow.

Herrera's speed and his ability to hit lefties along with righties makes this a pretty safe over bet.

As far as the stolen bases, Herrera went 25 for 32 last season, and now has a first base coach in Mickey Morandini who is focused on improving his players' jumps. 

Herrera had a .361 OBP last season. When you get on base that much and you're fast, you're in position to steal plenty of bases. 

Put me down for a .312 batting average and 31 steals for El Torito.

Cesar Hernandez: O/U .285, 25.5 steals
This one is tougher. I think the signs Hernandez showed in the second half last season were real, and I expect him to post a .350-plus on-base percentage, but I'm not fully confident that he'll exceed .285.

Would it be all that surprising if Hernandez hit something like .282 with a .360 OBP? I don't feel great about the batting average bet.

As far as the stolen bases, I'm taking the under, despite the aforementioned addition of Morandini. Hernandez has well-above-average speed, but he just hasn't proven to be an instinctive or efficient base stealer. He went 17 for 30 last season, becoming the first player since Brady Clark in 2005 to be caught at least 13 times in 30 or fewer attempts.

If the number was 20.5 or 22.5, I think I'd take the over. But 25.5 is a bit high for Cesar.

Howie Kendrick: O/U .275 BA
Taking the over. Kendrick hit .255 last season. He was also moved all over the field and all over the lineup by the Dodgers.

In the 10 seasons before last, Kendrick hit over .275 every year and hit .285 or better nine times.

He's a good singles hitter, and .275 is not a high benchmark. Unless Kendrick's skills have just completely eroded, this one feels safe.

Jerad Eickhoff and Jeremy Hellickson: O/U 10.5 wins each
Both pitchers were models of consistency last season -- Eickhoff made 33 starts and had a 3.65 ERA; Hellickson made 32 with a 3.71 ERA.

Both guys keep you in the game. Both guys will benefit from an improved offense and bullpen. And both go deep into games regularly enough to factor into the decision.

I feel slightly better about Hellickson's chances because the possibility exists that he'll be traded to a contender by the deadline, which would only enhance his chances of getting a bit more run support and being in position for an additional win or two. 

But I'd take the over on both.