Ryan Spilborghs is a former big league outfielder. He is currently a color analyst for the Colorado Rockies on Root Sports Rocky Mountain and also works for MLB Network Radio. He came up in the Rockies organization and appeared for the club at the major league level between 2005 and 2011, playing a significant role in Colorado’s 2007 and 2009 post-season runs. Ryan also spent time with the Indians and Rangers organizations in 2012 before finishing out his playing career with Japan’s Seibu Lions in 2013. MLBTR is glad to welcome him as a contributor to its Player’s Perspective series.
The Dodgers are positioned to make a deep playoff run this season. They have been one of the best teams in baseball despite losing the best pitcher on earth in Clayton Kershaw, remarkably going 32-22 since his injury. The front office has found ways to push this team forward by using the waiver wire, trades, and roster manipulation, including using an obscene 14 different starting pitchers.
The Dodgers were even willing to demote the polarizing Yasiel Puig because they felt it made their team better. Puig had put a strain on the clubhouse chemistry. Given that decision, the recent trade of A.J. Ellis to the Phillies for Carlos Ruiz was a strange move. Ellis was the heart and soul of the Dodgers. Carlos Ruiz is a good player who was instrumental for the Phillies in their great run from 2007-2011. Ruiz remains an excellent pitch caller and a great teammate. He can handle a pitching staff, and has better splits versus lefties than Ellis. We can dissect every advanced metric and acknowledge that this trade makes sense. However, I argue that no metric can place a value on what certain players mean to a team.
I expect the Dodgers to continue to play well. But from a player’s point of view, this trade fractures the team. There is now a disconnect between what is best for the team, and what the front office values for the group. In talking with various members of the media, reading the reactions of the Dodgers players (most notably Kershaw), and even if you ask opposing teams, everyone agrees: this trade made no sense.
I have played on two teams that have made the playoffs, the 2007 and 2009 Rockies. The ’07 team made it all the way to the World Series. Talent is always the separating factor. However, when a group of talented individuals play as a collective unit, the cliché “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” rings true. In order to have the collective whole play as a group, a bit of magic is required. Something must connect them. Most of the time it is a collection of “glue guys” who value the group more than themselves. These “glue guys” don’t have to be superstars, or even starting players. In 2007, Jamey Carroll, Yorvit Torrealba, Josh Fogg, and LaTroy Hawkins were as integral to the team as Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki. The following year, when the Rockies did not bring back Carroll, Hawkins and Fogg, the team and clubhouse were not the same. The front office undervalued their on and off-field production. The 2008 team was the same core of starting players, a team that should have returned to the post season, but it was not the same “core” team. The value of “glue guys” can never be measured but should always be respected.
Baseball has grown enamored with statistics. But baseball is human, it is a grind. Teams spend months with mostly the same individuals sharing a common goal: get through the day. Most times the Major League life is not glamorous or filled with joy. Each day can become monotonous and difficult. Having the rare teammate who can grind with you, who can hold teammates accountable, and who can make people around him better is invaluable. Trading that human element for a better left-handed split makes the Dodgers fragmented and vulnerable. Can a backup catcher really mean that much to a team? The short answer: yes.
Players understand the game is about results and getting wins. A team will not flinch if a great starting pitcher with an ERA over 6 needs to go. Often times, a team will keep a struggling veteran but limit his role to where he can still help a team win. In the case of Ellis, we are discussing the value of a role player and his effect on the overall health of the team. Kershaw and Ellis “wept” when they heard the news. Is that a normal reaction toward a player getting moved?
There are no shirts that say A.J. Ellis was the “heart and soul” of the Dodgers team, but you don’t need one to know that he was. Look at the reactions around baseball. Look at the response of the players in that clubhouse and the media that follows them. Ellis was the last player the Dodgers expected to lose. This story has nothing to do with Carlos Ruiz as a player, and everything to do with how front offices value a team. The Dodgers can easily win the World Series this year, because the talent is there, but it will not change my mind: trading Ellis was a serious mistake. A piece of the Dodgers is sitting in a clubhouse in Philadelphia, and that piece, however small you value it, may be the most important.