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Dodgers' role players earn their stripes, but not much salary

On a team loaded with big-money stars like Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez, low-paid 'glue guys' like Mark Ellis, A.J. Ellis and Luis Cruz could steer Dodgers' fate.

March 31, 2013|By Dylan Hernandez

The Dodgers will start their season Monday with a record payroll of $230 million.

But when they take the field at Dodger Stadium to face the San Francisco Giants, they are expected to do so with a shortstop earning $494,000.

For all the money the Dodgers have spent in the last year adding star attractions such as Adrian Gonzalez and Zack Greinke, they will be depending on unheralded players at some key positions — Justin Sellers at shortstop, Luis Cruz at third base, Mark Ellis at second base and A.J. Ellis at catcher.

Sellers looked around the clubhouse before a recent game. Matt Kemp was on one side. Andre Ethier was on another. Clayton Kershaw walked by.

"For them to have the confidence in putting me out there with such an elite group of guys, it makes me feel very good," Sellers said. "It builds my confidence to know their confidence is high."

The Dodgers aren't asking for much. What they expect from Sellers is to play solid defense in place of Hanley Ramirez, who will be sidelined until mid-May as he recovers from a thumb operation.

Sellers' bat has prevented him from becoming an everyday major leaguer. The 27-year-old son of former major league pitcher Jeff Sellers batted .204 in 55 games over the last two seasons.

When Ramirez was injured in the World Baseball Classic, the Dodgers initially considered replacing him by moving Cruz to shortstop. But they opted for Sellers and his superior defensive range, figuring their lineup had the necessary firepower to withstand his lack of offensive production.

The team is asking the other role players for something similar. Play steady defense. Move runners over. Take extra pitches and inflate opponents' pitch counts. In other words, avoid the mistakes that could cost the team games, and set the stage for the likes of Kemp and Gonzalez.

Perhaps no Dodger performed this role last season better than Mark Ellis. In a season that was interrupted by a serious leg injury, he ranked third among major league second baseman in ultimate zone rating, an advanced metric that calculates a player's defensive contributions.

When co-owner Magic Johnson called many of the Dodgers' key players before the start of spring training, the first player he phoned was Mark Ellis. The second player he called was A.J. Ellis.

"The intensity that they bring, they're leaders," Johnson said. "That could become infectious with the other guys."

Mark Ellis said he was humbled by the call.

"It's neat for me that he noticed something in me in the short time he was around the team last year," he said. "That's a good feeling for me. It's a responsibility too. I'm not loud like Matt. But if you go out there and work, if you play the game the right way, I think people see that."

The other Ellis is gaining a similar reputation in the clubhouse.

A.J. Ellis spent nine years riding buses in the minors and sitting on benches in the majors. Last year, with the team in bankruptcy and unable to afford a quality free-agent catcher, it made him a starter.

He flourished. That he could catch wasn't a surprise. What did come as a shock was that he could hit. Battling a knee injury that would require off-season surgery, he batted .270 with 13 home runs and 52 runs batted in.

The unexpected offensive production led to his first major payday, a one-year, $2-millon contract. By most standards, A.J. Ellis is a wealthy man. But on the Dodgers, he is only the 20th-highest-paid player.

He is understanding of where he stands.

"I don't know what it's like to be Matt Kemp or Adrian or Hanley or Andre and the pressures those guys face every day," he said. "Guys like me, we have to keep the train moving. We have to keep the team going in the right direction."

Like A.J. Ellis, Cruz wandered the minor leagues for years until the Dodgers' lack of options granted him an opportunity.

In the 11 years of professional baseball he played before last year, Cruz's major league experience was limited to a combined 56 games with the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Dodgers signed him to a minor league contract last year and called him up in July. He played shortstop for about a month before he was moved to third base to accommodate Ramirez. Through it all, he hit. Even when his higher-profile teammates slumped, Cruz remained a constant offensive threat.

He finished the season with a .297 average in 78 games. He hit six home runs and drove in 40 runs.

Though Cruz will draw a modest salary of $505,000, he might be the role player closest to becoming a star. His Mexican heritage and rags-to-riches story have made him a fan favorite at Dodger Stadium, where the crowd cheers "Cruuuuuuuz" whenever he is introduced for an at-bat.

"I wish I had a name like that," Kemp told him.

Cruz was standing within earshot when A.J. Ellis listed the Dodgers' stars and members of the supporting cast. Cruz noticed he wasn't named.

"Which one am I?" Cruz asked.

Ellis told him, "Stay humble."

Cruz smiled and nodded.

Short hops

The Dodgers set their opening-day roster Sunday, and Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang were on it. The team was unable to trade either of the two career starting pitchers, who will start the season as relievers. As expected, Ramirez (thumb), Chad Billingsley (finger), Ted Lilly (shoulder) and Scott Elbert (elbow) were put on the disabled list. Billingsley, who is expected to miss only one turn in the rotation, could start Class-A Rancho Cucamonga's season opener Thursday as part of a minor league rehabilitation assignment.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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