Ha, Mark Ellis’ 2014 option was just declined by the Los Angeles Dodgers and the vultures are circling. No, he’s not dead, career-wise or otherwise. At least not yet, anyways. The vultures are limited to this particular blogger here at AL Eastbound. Now is the highpoint of the Toronto Blue Jays 2013 season: it’s the time between an incredibly disappointing campaign and new acquisitions. Let the speculation begin.
The Jays’ best 2B of the last 15 years were Aaron Hill and Orlando Hudson. Hill was on the plus side of steady defensively; Hudson was very good. He had more range than Kate Smith. Hill was very good offensively when he wasn’t battling the after-effects of concussions; Hudson was a plus player offensively.
Second base was a significant problem for the Jays in 2013. Emilio Bonifacio stunk it up, then was traded to the Royals for a Tim’s card and an old one-piece Sherwood. Maicer Izturis was the lowest ranking utility player in all of Major League Baseball. Ryan Goins provided a glimmer of hope but small sample cautions apply here. Also, the free agent market for 2B isn’t exactly pulse-quickening after Robinson Cano and his $300MM dream is crossed off the list.
Mark Ellis is a proney. Steamer projects 146 G for Mark Ellis in 2014 but that’s a pipe dream: he’s played 150 games or more only twice in his career, but not since 2007. A strained right quadriceps, a groin problem, and a ‘leg injury’ slowed Ellis down in 2013. Leg injuries aren’t good no matter what position you play, but they’re especially problematic for middle infielders, catchers, and pitchers. He missed 43 games in 2012 with a left leg injury.
Do the Jays need another regular DL candidate? Probably not. Imagine the frustration in the front office, the dugout, and the seats at The Rog if both Ellis and Jose Reyes were both on the DL at the same time, for an extended period of time. Ugh.
Second, he’s 36 years old. He’ll be 37 on the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings on the beach in Normandy on D-Day (June 6). His injury problems aren’t likely to get better (146 G, Steamer? Seriously?), but his offense, defense, or base running won’t either. Every aspect of his game will continue to circle the bowl because he’s several years beyond his career peak.
His decline relates directly to this one, salient fact: Mark Ellis is old, as far as most professional sports are concerned. I don’t think he’s old. Mark DeRosa, Mark Buehrle and RA Dickey wouldn’t think he was old. But my kids would.
He’s not what he used to be, but he’s still a very good defender. Fangraphs (http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=1443&position=2B) rates him as a plus defender every year of his career, and his last 3 seasons have checked in at 12.6, 7.0, and 7.4 runs above average. Good defenders are multi-faceted: good positioning, understanding hitters, understanding the pitcher, good athletic ability, understanding the game, and so on. As they age, they rely on some of these factors more than others, of course, as physical skills dissipate. Good, smart defenders are hard to find.
Baseball-Reference, in their defensive metrics, tells me that Mark Ellis has averaged about 1.5 WAR per season on defense alone. C’mon, Wes, you’d say. Don’t try to pull that stuff over my eyes; it’s just an average drawn from a long career. You’re right, I’d say. But then I’d tell you that his defensive value isn’t skewed toward his younger/peak years. He was a 4.5 WAR player on defense mid-career (28-30 years old); he’s been a 4.3 WAR player on defense for the last 3 seasons (34-36 years old). He’s been a consistently strong defender for his entire career.
On offense, I’m going to bring a passage by Dave Cameron to your attention:
Ellis is renowned mostly for his glove work at second base, and he carved out a nice career for himself as an underrated defender on some good teams. However, over the last month, Ellis’ bat has been one of the primary reasons the Dodgers offense has clicked. In that span, he’s hit .347/.390/.507, putting up a 154 wRC+ that is second among Dodgers regulars behind Mr. Puig. And despite Ellis’ reputation, he’s actually never really been the glove-only player that his reputation suggested.
For the season, Ellis has a wRC+ of 99. Last year, it was 98. For his career, it’s 96. Mark Ellis has been an average hitter for most of his career. Like everyone else, he has ups (135 wRC+ in 2005) and his downs (67 in 2011), but overall, he’s usually ended up right back around average. Like pretty much all of his teammates this year, he was lousy early in the season but has been pretty great lately, and getting quality offensive production from a second baseman can go a long ways towards beating your opponents.
Because Ellis’ production mostly comes through a barrage of singles, he can be easy to overlook, but in the last month, no second baseman in baseball has been more productive at the plate. With Matt Kemp on the DL and Adrian Gonzalez struggling, it’s tempting to think that Puig and Ramirez are carrying the offense, but relative to his position, Ellis has actually been the team’s best hitter.
This is the player he was in mid-2013. Not 2003, 2007 or 2009, but 2013. He won’t be mistaken for Robinson Cano, but for a month—whether we agree with Dave Cameron’s assessment or not—Mark Ellis was perhaps the most valuable offensive contributor on the hottest team in baseball. And Cameron was almost right: Ellis was only a notch below average (91 wRC+).
It’s almost a footnote, but I find a comment made in Mark Ellis’ scouting report at www.tsn.ca to be intriguing. They assess Ellis’ offense as follows: “Is very good at moving runners ahead of him, and generally doing the little things.” His offense is in decline and has been for years but he handles the bat well, moves runners along, sacrifices, and makes productive outs. When was the last time this could be said about a Toronto Blue Jay?
Another significant positive is that Mark Ellis is presently unattached: for no more than money (i.e. no draft pick compensation, no prospects, no roster players), Ellis could be a Blue Jay. I don’t know if that makes him the MLB equivalent of a gigolo, but that’s free agency for you. The Los Angeles Dodgers paid him $1 million to play for someone else next season. And he’s still good enough to play for someone else next season.
Alright, we don’t want to flog this one too much. There are other players being considered who have their own pros and cons (e.g. Gordon Beckham, Brandon Phillips), but we didn’t want to just gloss over the possibility of Mark Ellis at 2B for the Toronto Blue Jays. Would he look good in blue? A mentor for Ryan Goins, perhaps? Very interesting. Very interesting, indeed.