Why Did the Dodgers Trade A.J. Ellis?

Last night, the Dodgers and Phillies made a deal that, on the surface, is your typical minor August move of minor role players. The Dodgers landed Carlos Ruiz, a 37 year old catcher, in exchange for A.J. Ellis, a 35 year old catcher, and a prospect of dubious quality. The impetus for the trade seems pretty clear; Ruiz can still hit lefties a bit, and so he’s a better fit as Yasmani Grandal’s platoon partner in the postseason. Ellis isn’t much at the plate these days, so by adding Ruiz, the team has slightly upgraded their offense against left-handed pitching.

But the trade was a big deal because, as was immediately apparent given the reaction to the news of the deal, A.J. Ellis was beloved by his teammates, and especially, by the team’s ace.

Ellis and Kershaw are obviously quite close, but other members of the team also showed their support for Ellis, and made it clear they will miss him.

By trading away a beloved part of the clubhouse for a minor bench upgrade, the media has been handed a very simple narrative: nerd-run team doesn’t value chemistry, tears apart clubhouse in the process. The fact that the Dodgers were one out away from being no-hit on the night Ellis got traded didn’t do anything to slow that story down. But of course the Dodgers do care at least a little bit about chemistry, or Yasiel Puig wouldn’t be hanging out in Triple-A right now. So, six days away from roster expansion, when Ellis could have kept hanging around the team even after they acquired Ruiz, why did the Dodgers trade A.J. Ellis?

After all, it’s not like the Phillies really had a significant need for a 35 year old catcher who will be a free agent in five weeks. While Phillies GM Matt Klentak said that they had to have Ellis in return, it’s difficult for me to buy that the two teams couldn’t have found another package for Ruiz that would have worked for Philadelphia if Andrew Friedman had just said that Ellis was off the table for clubhouse reasons. That seems like a position other teams would understand, and the Dodgers could have even engineered a three team deal to get some other veteran part-time catcher if the Phillies really didn’t want to be without a Ruiz replacement in the deal.

Acquiring Ruiz without including Ellis in the deal would have been much less controversial, after all. No one seems particularly offended at the idea of a contender upgrading a role player spot, but it’s the removal of Ellis from the clubhouse that is raising questions about the deal. So couldn’t they have made the deal while still keeping Ellis around, even if he didn’t really play much? You make up an injury to get him on the 15 day DL until the rosters expand, but let him “rehab” with the team so he’s still around, then activate him in a couple of weeks with no harm done. Seems easy enough.

If this were another franchise, I’d think that maybe Ellis was included as a salary offset, but the Dodgers are willing to throw real money at any possible area they think could make their team even slightly better, so it seems hard to believe that the team couldn’t stomach paying Ellis another $800,000 over the rest of the season. That’s chump change to LA, and doesn’t really seem to make sense as a reason to create this easy story for everyone to tell about your downfall if the team fails to make a deep postseason run again. The negative P.R. associated with the stories that will be written about the cold-hearted executives trading a lifelong Dodger almost certainly do more than $800,000 worth of public relations could make up for anyway.

But keeping Ellis around would come with a non-monetary cost, and it’s the only one I can think of that would explain why the Dodgers put him in the Ruiz deal; it might end up costing them a player they want to keep beyond this year.

By swapping Ellis and Ruiz, the team didn’t have to make any changes to their 40-man roster; if they had acquired Ruiz without sending Ellis back, they’d have been at 41 players on the 40-man, and would have been forced to make a move to clear a spot. Actually clearing that spot wouldn’t be all that hard, as they could just DFA a guy like Casey Fien, who would likely clear waivers, but by picking the lowest hanging fruit on the 40-man DFA tree, the team could put themselves in a tough position in a few weeks.

Over the next month, the team has four players who could potentially come off the 60-day disabled list, and require moves to get them back on the 40-man as well. Clayton Kershaw is getting closer to a potential return, and obviously, they’ll want to have a spot for him. Andre Ethier just started his rehab assignment, and could be back in a couple of weeks. Trayce Thompson’s situation remains a little unclear, but it’s possible he could return in September if his back recovers. And finally, Alex Wood is throwing off flat ground, and it’s also possible he makes it back by the end of the season to strengthen the team’s relief corps.

It’s unlikely that all four of those guys make it back, but two or three probably will, and the team will have to make room for them on the 40-man before they can be activated. And if you’re keeping Ellis around essentially just because everyone else likes him, that’s one fewer 40-man roster spot the team would have when it comes time to make room for some of the returning 60-day disabled list guys.

So, had they made up an injury to Ellis to stash him until rosters expanded, they might have still been in a situation where he’d be a potential DFA candidate in a few weeks anyway. Would it have gone over better to simply demote Ellis to third-string catcher, then dump him in mid-September, than trading him to a place that will play him in advance of free agency? I’m not so sure. While Ellis certainly seemed like he would have preferred to stick around for the playoff run, if the Dodgers thought they were going to have to DFA him in a few weeks anyway, perhaps it was better for the clubhouse to get it over with now and give everyone in the locker room a month to get over it before the playoffs start, rather than having it be a fresh wound when October rolls around.

Of all the possible explanations for including Ellis in the deal, that’s the only one I can see that rings true enough to explain the team’s motivation. The idea that the team didn’t want to have to deal with Kershaw throwing to Ellis doesn’t really work, given that we’d be talking about something like 10 at-bats in September if Kershaw does make it back, and if the team didn’t want Kershaw forcing them to carry Ellis as his personal catcher in October, they could have just let him off the postseason roster; there would be a lot less of an outcry about not carrying a guy hitting .190 on your playoff roster, after all.

In theory, acquiring Ruiz and keeping Ellis would have been the best of both worlds, giving them a better right-handed hitting backup catcher but still allowing the team to keep Ellis around for clubhouse reasons. But with a 40-man roster crunch coming when the team’s army of injured players finish their rehab assignments, perhaps that just wasn’t going to be possible.

Whether the cost of moving Ellis will outweigh the addition of Ruiz’s bat remains to be seen, and perhaps this is just too much hand wringing over when the team had to DFA Casey Fien or Charlie Culberson. But given the Dodgers love of depth, this is the best explanation I can come up with; Ellis wouldn’t have lasted on the 40-man through September anyway, so make a clean break now and give the guys in the locker room a month to recover before the postseason starts.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

Thank you, Dave. I’ve been trying to figure this one out.