I know this will be hard for some of you to believe, but sometimes we saberdouches miss on a player. Whether that’s Bobby Kielty, or Billy McMillon, or Daric Barton, some guys just don’t develop the way we hope they will. AAAA players, guys who simply can’t make the jump from AAA to the Majors, do exist. Meanwhile, sometimes guys like Denard Span or Melky Cabrera defy expectations and establish themselves as good or even great Major Leaguers, when there’s very little eveidence they will. We’re wrong sometimes.
But sometimes we’re really not. And so I’m incredibly excited to see what AJ Ellis has been doing this season with regular playing time. Coming into 2012, Ellis had managed a .406 OBP in the minors over nine seasons, but with just a .380 slugging percentage, despite spending the last four seasons at Las Vegas and Albuquerque in the Pacific Coast League. In the Majors, he had totaled 244 plate appearances, and had hit .262/.360/.330. He was also going to be 31 years old and had never had more than 128 plate appearances in any previous season.
The Dodgers had tried everything not to use him. They traded for Rod Barajas in 2010 when Russell Martin got hurt. They brought in Brad Ausmus to back them up. In 2011, with Barajas entrenched as the starter, they used Dioner Navarro as the #2 catcher for most of the season. Despite his patient approach and solid defense, Ellis was about to have his shot at the Major Leagues snatched away without even getting a chance to prove he could do it.
But with the Dodgers strapped financially, they finally turned to Ellis as a last resort this year, and Ellis has rewarded them for taking that chance by hitting .317/.442/.517 with 5 homers, 26 walks, and a 166 OPS+ in 149 plate appearances. He’s also caught 46% of runners who have tried to steal against him. Now, this almost certainly isn’t Ellis’ true talent level. Obviously, we’re dealing with a relatively small sample, and there’s probably a fair amount of luck helping him along. But, at 31, Ellis has proven that he’s good enough to play in the Majors. All he needed was someone desperate enough to take a chance.
And really, that’s what any AAAA player needs. Neither statheads nor scouts will be able to tell you with certainty whether a player like AJ Ellis will be able to make the jump; only time and plate appearances (or innings pitched) can tell you that. And given that teams are allowed to control their minor leaguers so completely for so long, it seems only fair that these players at least get a proper shot. The fraternity of Major League Baseball players is relatively small, and guys who have earned a shot to join it, deserve that chance. The chance to establish themselves, and validate their careers. To justify the years and years of training, of traveling, and of being away from their families. Baseball teams have an obligation to give them their shot. And really, if a team isn’t going anywhere, it’s in their best interest to do so. Because if you can find an AJ Ellis, you have a tremendous advantage.
Ellis may have graduated from the ranks, but there are still guys who are looking to get a proper chance at the Majors:
Anthony Slama has a 1.97 ERA in 6 minor league seasons, including a 2.28 ERA at AAA over the last four. He has 7 Major League innings to his credit. This year, he’s pitched 20.1 innings and struck out 33 batters, and has allowed one run (0.44 ERA). The Twins (who have 38 players on their 40 man roster), refuse to add him to the 40 man and call him up, despite a weak pitching staff, saying that his fastball is too straight for the Majors. He’s 28 years old.
It’s hard to tell what Todd Redmond is supposed to do to make it to the Braves. He’s pitched 8 minor league seasons now, is 27 years old, and has never thrown a pitch in the Bigs. In the last two years, he’s had a 2.80 ERA at AAA Gwinnett and has struck out 21.3% of the batters he’s faced. The Braves, who normally have strong pitching depth, have seen Jair Jurrjens fall to injuries and ineffectivness, Arodys Vizcaino to Tommy John surgery, and Julio Teheran to wildness. Using Redmond in the rotation while Mike Minor remembers how to pitch, or transferring Redmond to the bullpen already will help keep the Braves competitive in what looks like a fun NL East this year.
In fairness, Travis Snider has had more than 800 plate appearances in the Majors. But he debuted at just 20 and was probably rushed, even though he was destroying International League pitching at the time. And his struggles after his initial success left Jays fans scratching their heads. In 2012, he’s raking at Las Vegas (not that hard to do), hitting .333/.411/.604 with 19 strikeouts in 112 plate appearances. He has hit .333/.407/.559 over 153 AAA games, and while Las Vegas makes it hard to evaluate hitters, it’s pretty clear he has nothing left to learn there. He’s still only 24, and he needs a half-season worth of additional Major League plate appearances before we write him off. And blocking his way with Eric Thames (.250/.296/.379) when you’re likely to finish in last makes no sense. He certainly deserves more of a shot than Yan Gomes.