Daily Distractions: Who will be the Dodgers’ backup catcher when A.J. Ellis returns from the disabled list?

A.J. Ellis, Brian Gorman

Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis will play in a Triple-A rehab game today. (Karl Gehring/The Denver Post)

A.J. Ellis will play his second rehab game for Triple-A Albuquerque in as many days today. It could be his last. Tuesday is smack-dab in the middle of the 4 to 6 week timetable the team gave at the time of the arthroscopic procedure on Ellis’ left knee, so it would make perfect sense for him to rejoin the Dodgers then.

Without Ellis, the catching duties have been split fairly liberally among Miguel Olivo, Drew Butera and Tim Federowicz, who’s currently in Triple-A. Which of the three becomes the backup once Ellis returns?

“If you want me to make that decision now, I probably can’t do that,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said before Sunday’s game against the Giants, a 7-4 loss. “I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. We’ll figure that out as we get there. It comes down to conversations, us talking about what we need, what we want that position to be and what we think about it.”

Mattingly said the conversations have already begun.

When imagining where the conversation begins, it’s tempting to focus on offense. There isn’t much to look at there. Olivo started hot, but in his last 11 at-bats he has no hits and eight strikeouts. Overall he is 5 for 23 (.217). Butera is 10 for 44 (.227) with two home runs. Federowicz was 5 for 46 (.109) with one home run before his demotion.

Of course, the Dodgers aren’t focusing on offense from their catchers. More important to the conversation is how each player handles the position defensively and how well they work with the pitching staff. Those are harder to quantify, especially in a small sample size.

Nonetheless, here we go.

Butera has the lowest catchers’ ERA of the bunch (2.90, 10th in baseball) and hasn’t made an error. He’s also tied for the league lead in passed balls (four) and has thrown out only one of four attempted base stealers.

Of course, passed balls are a judgment call. Olivo wasn’t charged with a passed ball last night when J.P. Howell threw a slider in the dirt in the 10th inning. But because Olivo didn’t keep the ball in front him, a runner was able to score from third base. In 54 innings, Olivo has a 4.73 catchers’ ERA. Two baserunners have tried stealing on him; one was caught.

Pitch framing is not an asset for any of the Dodgers’ catchers, according to StatCorner.com.

We could parse Federowicz’s numbers, but his contract status separates him from this discussion if Olivo, Butera and Ellis are healthy. Federowicz can be optioned to the minors at any time. He’ll stay there so long as he continues to miss 48 percent of the breaking pitches he swings at. (That was his miss rate in the majors.) Butera and Olivo are out of options, so one of the two will probably be designated for assignment in the next 48 hours.

“We’ve been pretty clear about what we like out of our catchers,” Mattingly said. “The backup catcher … you’re not playing as much. You want to make sure that you’re getting the right guy back there for all the things you’re asking him to do — studying, working with pitchers, all those things because it’s just what we want out of the position. As much as what we’re looking for offensively … it’s what we’re looking for out of the position.”

Some bullet points for an International Nurses Day:
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Daily Distractions: What happened to Stephen Fife?

Stephen Fife

Stephen Fife is 3-6 with a 3.49 earned-run average in 17 major-league games (15 starts), all with the Dodgers. (Getty Images)

Through no fault of his own, Stephen Fife was not the talk of spring training a year ago. People were talking about the Dodgers’ high-priced roster of superstars and how they would jell, the eight starting pitchers with guaranteed major-league contracts when camp broke, and the intrigue surrounding rookies Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Fife had no chance of starting the season in the major leagues due to the aforementioned surplus of starters. So he began the season Albuquerque, only to be summoned to Los Angeles three weeks later when injuries struck Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Zack Greinke. His return was hastened because Fife had a marvelous camp, his fastball suddenly sitting in the mid-90s after sporadically breaking 90 the year before.

Manager Don Mattingly said at the time that “this guy has come so far last spring to this spring — huge strides.”

On Tuesday, Fife’s name was among the first group of players optioned to the Dodgers’ minor-league camp. So what happened?

Fife said Tuesday that he was taking a different, less intense approach to spring training this year. The approach was born from wisdom, but also might have led to his premature demotion.

“I have no idea what (my) velocity is so far,” he said. “I’m throwing at a ‘competitive level’ but not a midseason level. Watching (Josh) Beckett, (Clayton) Kershaw, (Zack) Greinke, those guys — some days they take it easy.”

After struggling with bursitis in his right shoulder for much of 2013, Fife began his off-season spending four days a week with Dodgers physical therapist Steve Smith trying to correct the mechanical issues that led to his bursitis in the first place. He said the scapula bone in his right shoulder had actually migrated up his back.

It wasn’t until the second week of January that Fife said he was throwing pain-free.

“I didn’t have much of an off-season,” he said.

Maybe Fife could have touched 95 on the radar gun in camp. After a short off-season, he seemed content to save his best stuff for April and beyond.

There were other factors working against Fife. The Dodgers wanted to see more from Zach Lee, Seth Rosin and Jarret Martin, three younger pitchers getting their first look in the Dodgers’ major-league camp. Each is still an unproven talent against major-league hitters. Lee and Martin might be deserving of a call-up later this season (Rosin is a Rule 5 pick who must make the Opening Day roster or else go on waivers), but they also need more time against major-league hitters in camp to earn that opportunity.

Fife is a known quantity. He went 4-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 12 games (10 starts) last season. The 27-year-old has one option year left on his contract. Fife could always pull a Justin Sellers and sneak back onto the roster before the end of camp, or pull a Stephen Fife and find his way back by the end of April.

That would require a spate of injuries to the team’s top starters, but we’ve seen that before. Keep an eye on Fife; he might be back.

Some bullet points for a Multiple Personality Day:
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Aaron Miles back on a minor-league contract.

The Dodgers signed free-agent infielder Aaron Miles to a minor-league contract. A team spokesperson said the 35-year-old infielder is currently in Arizona awaiting his assignment.

Miles played 136 games for the Dodgers last season, mostly at second and third base, batting .275 with three home runs and 45 RBIs. He has hit .281 over a nine-year career with five different teams.

The Dodgers signed Adam Kennedy and Jerry Hairston Jr. to fill their backup infield spots rather than re-sign Miles, who hasn’t had a contract since last season.

Also Friday, the Dodgers requested release waivers on right-handed reliever Mike MacDougal, who was designated for assignment May 3. MacDougal can become a free agent Sunday.

MacDougal designated for assignment, Belisario reinstated.

The Dodgers designated Mike MacDougal for assignment Thursday and activated Ronald Belisario from the inactive list. Belisario had been serving a 25-game, league-mandated suspension for a positive drug test, and needed to be released, DFA’d or added to the major-league roster today.

Since that inevitability had been lingering since the season began, MacDougal had to be feeling the heat after he allowed five runs (all earned) in 5.2 innings for a 7.94 ERA. The 35-year-old right-hander also walked six and struck out four.

The Dodgers have 10 days to either add MacDougal to the 40-man roster, trade him, release him or place him on waivers (within seven days).
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Dodgers 1, Angels 1 (6).

Less than a half-hour after the final out, the sun was shining brightly over Camelback Ranch. But by then the fans were gone, players were changing into street clothes, and the final score — the Dodgers’ fourth tie of the Cactus League season (8-4-4) — seemed an insignificant afterthought. At least, no one in the press corps seemed bothered by the managers’ decision to end Sunday’s game after five and a half innings.

“We don’t want to sit out there and try to fight weather all day long after being here all day,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “The guys who needed work got their work, I’m happy with going home, to be honest with you.”

The actual game recap is a brief one:

The Angels’ Kole Calhoun scored in the first inning on a sacrifice fly by Mark Trumbo. Juan Uribe singled in Adam Kennedy for the Dodgers’ only run in the fifth. Both starting pitchers, Chris Capuano and Anaheim’s Dan Haren, allowed a mere two hits. John Grabow and Mike MacDougal worked one scoreless inning each out of the Dodgers’ bullpen.

After MacDougal’s last pitch, rain (and later hail) began to pelt the field hard enough that a tarp was rolled over the infield 1 hour and 16 minutes after first pitch.

The only semblance of drama for the Dodgers on this day took place before and after the game, when the second round of roster cuts was announced. Four players left the room in the morning, and catcher Gorman Erickson, catcher Matt Wallach, infielder Lance Zawadzki and first baseman Jeff Baisley were re-assigned to the minor league camp. More on that in tomorrow’s editions.

A few more notes:

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