With pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training yesterday, one of the lingering questions coming into camp was the backup catcher job. Austin Hedges had a fantastic year behind the plate last season, establishing himself as one of the game’s premium defenders at the most valuable defensive position on the diamond. Last year’s backup, Hector Sanchez, signed with the San Francisco Giants earlier this offseason, leaving the Padres with only Rocky Gale and Luis Torrens as backup backstops on the 40-man roster. Switch-hitting Raffy Lopez was signed to a minor league deal earlier this offseason, but there were still rumblings that the team intended to add another catcher to the mix for depth. Signing a veteran like AJ Ellis makes perfect sense.
It's a non-roster deal for Ellis, who batted .210/.298/.371 for Miami last season.— AJ Cassavell (@AJCassavell) February 15, 2018
We know AJ Ellis best as the preferred catcher of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. He spent most of his first nine years of MLB service time with the Dodgers, serving as a backup for most of that time. With former Dodger scouting director Logan White in the Padres’ front office, and former Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire working with manager Andy Green as bench coach, it’s likely that prior personal experience played into this signing. A mid-season trade sent him to Philadelphia in 2016, and he signed a one-year free agent deal with the Marlins last season. Always considered an above average defender, Ellis understands how to work with top-tier pitchers and earn their trust behind the plate.
While this signing certainly appears to set Ellis up for the MLB job, it’s important to note that the backup job is an open competition at this point. Switch-hitter Raffy Lopez had a breakout year offensively in AAA, hitting an impressive .293/.368/.551 in the Independent League. Rocky Gale and Luis Torrens are already on the 40-man roster, and while neither projects as a legitimate MLB option, a strong spring could earn them a job. It’s important to note that Andy Green has stressed the importance of veteran leadership. He is trying to cultivate a culture of player-driven development as much as coaching-driven development, so getting an intelligent veteran catcher in the mix would help Austin Hedges mature and it would help the pitching staff as a whole as he works with them in game preparation and on off days. Consider this signing another savvy win for AJ Preller.