The trade of Eduardo Escobar opened the door for Drew Ellis to get his chance at playing time as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ third baseman, and it’s a work in progress through four games.
Ellis, a second-round pick of the Diamondbacks in the 2017 draft out of Louisville, got the start at third base Wednesday night against the San Francisco Giants. It was his third time in the lineup since the Escobar trade.
That Ellis is in the big leagues is due to good numbers at Triple-A Reno, but those numbers (.286 batting average, 13 home runs, 21 doubles, 52 runs batted in, 65 games) are in part a product of Ellis finding a place to play regularly in 2020 when he was not invited to the Diamondbacks’ alternate training site.
The Louisville native took part in a four-team independent league set up to allow minor leaguers whose season was canceled due to the coronavirus a place to stay sharp. Ellis, now 25 years old, found more than that.
He played with minor leaguers and experienced major leaguers as well, including longtime Cincinnati Reds infielder Brandon Phillips and former Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Ben Revere.
“It was super fun. Just kind of laid back. Got to play baseball, obviously it was an off-year for me with COVID and everything, so just being able to go play and have fun and enjoy the game and keep perspective on what was important was really big for me,” Ellis said.
Not being invited to the alternate site in 2020 fueled Ellis’ competitive fire. He told himself he had to play somewhere, and close to home was a good fit. He commuted about an hour by car every day to go play ball.
“He’s shown us a lot. He went out into ‘indy’ ball and played really, really well. It was one of those unfortunate, right at the border where we had to make choices on who was going to be at the ‘alt’ site and who wasn’t,” Diamondbacks General Manager Mike Hazen said recently. “He came into spring training and had a great attitude. I don’t think he was happy about that, but he sort of explained the frustration and what he set out to do, and then he’s gone to Triple-A and been the same guy. He’s played very well defensively. That is going to be good to see.”
Ellis found joy in the game again, admitting that he didn’t perform as well as he hoped to in the minor leagues in 2018 and 2019. So the chance to work out and focus on his swing and cleaning up some things helped him a great deal.
Ellis worked out in the offseason with Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith, a friend and former Louisville teammate.
The positive side of not being with the Diamondbacks allowed him to watch friends make their major-league debuts in 2020. It also motivated him to tell himself what he needs to do and where he needs to grow.
And that wasn’t only in baseball. He said a full year away from organizational baseball helped him “be the best version of myself I can be.”
In the big leagues, Ellis started out with a hit in his first 10 at-bats going into Wednesday’s game. But he’s excited to be part of a younger group of Diamondbacks trying to make the most of their opportunity in losing season.
“I think this team, we’re going through our struggles but I think we’re going to be good. With the guys that are coming up and the guys we have here, it’s going to be fun for years to come, for sure,” Ellis said.
Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said there are some growing pains when players come up to the big leagues.
“He has really good actions on defense, I think he’s commanding the strike zone when he’s at the plate and controlling the at-bat,” Lovullo said. “We know that he’s got a lot more work to do and he’s going to get after it and get some opportunity.”
Ellis is trying to simplify his approach.
“It’s baseball. It’s cliche, but it’s the same game as before,” he said. “There’s a lot of good pitchers, a lot of good hitters, but I think if I just focus on what I need to focus on and keep that narrow path of what I need to do, I’ll be in a good spot.”
— Lovullo said pitcher Noé Ramirez and outfielder Stuart Fairchild are feeling better as they recover from COVID-19 symptoms. Pitchers Joe Mantiply and Riley Smith and outfielder Pavin Smith, who are also in the protocol, are feeling good and will return to baseball activity soon, Lovullo said.
“We just have to be mindful that this virus is still alive, it’s still out there,” Lovullo said, “and ourselves in the best possible situation to remain healthy.”
— Pitcher Luke Weaver, coming back from a shoulder injury, threw 40 pitches to batters over two innings of rehab work, one batter which was infielder Josh Rojas, who got four at-bats. Rojas is working his way back from a dislocated finger.
— Second baseman Josh VanMeter was a late scratch from Wednesday’s lineup against the San Francisco Giants, due to lower back spasms. Jake Hager replaced him.