Chase Utley and the Uncertainty of Tomorrow in Baseball


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In the past I’ve been accused of not liking some of our 2008 Phillies’ heroes, lately that being Chase Utley. I think that’s an unfair way to view the different reactions though to Chase Utley’s season, and the debate over whether he or Cesar Hernandez should be playing second base now. I think it’s an over-simplification. It’s not about liking or not liking a ballplayer, because if it was, no one could possibly dislike Chase Utley and his hard style of play. Utley has been a model citizen in Philadelphia, and he is the example of how you should play baseball.

I’ve now been a Phillies fan long enough though to see my favorite Phillies come and go. I was a younger, new fan when Michael Jack Schmidt called it a career. I watched the disintegration of 1993 heroes like Lenny Dykstra. I was around in 1997 when Darren Daulton and Jim Eisenreich got sent to Florida to win a ring. I remember the 2000 Curt Schilling trade very well, one that turned out well for Curt. I remember Scott Rolen getting dealt, Jim Thome being dealt, and even Bobby Abreu being traded up I-95. Every time a player who provided much enjoyment to fans got dealt, it was tough. It was difficult to accept. A month later though, there was still a team. By the time we sent Jimmy Rollins to Los Angeles last year, or for that matter when we sent Shane Victorino there several years ago, I’d reached the point as a fan where I took it in stride. Players come and go. Like the rest of us, they get old too. That’s life.

Now back to Chase Utley though. He had an awful first half, one that was well below what we have come to expect from him. He went to the DL, and a younger guy named Cesar Hernandez stepped in and did a more than admirable job. In 96 games, with 314 plate appearances, Hernandez has slashed a .285/.360/.372/.732, with a homer, 15 doubles, 3 triples, and 17 stolen bases. His defense is not top of the league good, but it is mostly adequate and was actually a step up from what Chase provided early. Some have tried to poke holes in Hernandez’s performance by questioning his walk rate, his BABIP, and other things, but a look over his entire professional career suggests that Cesar is probably not far off of the player he has played as this season, which is pretty decent. Hernandez is playing to around a one WAR share so far this season, which is not going to get him compared to Joe Morgan or Roberto Alomar, but his overall body of work does get him positive comparisons to the league average this season.

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Utley is now off of the DL, and is playing. In fact, he’s playing quite well. He’s 3-for-9 so far, and had two doubles last night. This is well ahead of his season numbers of .185/.260/.286/.546, and perhaps gives credence to those arguing that Chase was simply too hurt to judge early on. It’s also giving Chase a lot of buzz as a trade candidate, something that Chase addressed after last night’s win:

“Like I’ve said all along, I would be more than happy to listen to them,” Utley said. “I do love Philadelphia. I’ve had a great time playing here, but out of respect for them, I would definitely listen to them.”

Chase Utley has 10-and-5 rights, meaning he can block any trade. In the past he has said he would block any trade, but he softened that stance in Spring Training by saying he would consider what the Phillies had to say if they started to trade away other veterans. After the trades of Hamels, Diekman, Revere, and Papelbon, they clearly began to dismantle the old team this season. Utley stated last night that he is on the same page with Manager Pete Mackanin on sharing the playing time with Hernandez right now, but also that he is playing with a chip on his shoulder, looking to prove that he can still play. Utley’s vesting option for 2016 was to vest with 500 plate appearances, and is just about a lock to not happen at this point. This means his future in Philadelphia rests entirely on a club option for somewhere between $5-11 million for next season, one that has a $2 million buyout. Given the overall direction of the ballclub, it would seem that giving Hernandez the second base job fits better, and makes more sense, though there is a decent argument for keeping Utley around on the cheap to serve as a mentor for the players on the team. If you believe a return to health will improve his performance back to something similar to his 2014 numbers. The key for me is the language on his options, and whether he can still vest his remaining two options if the Phillies exercise his club option in 2016, or whether they all are club options now that his first didn’t vest. The second key for me is what they would do with Ryan Howard this off-season, and whether the first baseman is back or not, meaning his position is open or not for Utley. There is a discussion to be had about Utley’s future though either way, but all of that is in the backseat for now.

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Chase Utley appears to have some trade value right now, and that is the immediate order of business. He’s been linked to the Angels, Cubs, and Yankees so far, and I could see many more teams taking interest in him if he continues to perform the way he did in his first two games back, and on his rehab assignment. There are many obstacles in the way of a trade though, such as Chase’s early struggles, him getting through waivers (though this is likely, since he is owed a substantial amount of salary), how much of his $4.6 million remaining, plus the $2 million guarantee on the buyout the Phillies pick up, and of course, what the prospect return is. The Phillies have to get a decent prospect or two to make a trade worth it, otherwise why bother? All of those hurdles have to be cleared along the way to make a trade happen at all. My sense is that the Phillies are trying to clear them.

In truth, this is how baseball works. Hernandez may or may not be a long-term solution at second base, but he’s 25 years old, while Chase is 36. The track record on second baseman in their mid-30s is poor, and I feel like Chase already outlived my expectations by not allowing his knee issues to end his career back in 2012. Second baseman normally begin to lose a step somewhere between 31 and 33, as the performances of such greats as Ryne Sandberg, Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, and even currently Robinson Cano suggest. Utley, for perspective, was an All-Star at age 35. Time passes every player by though, and the identity of the Phillies next season looks to be even younger than this year. Certainly the Phillies need a few veterans, and certainly Chase would be a good one to keep around, but this is about the time a non-biased viewer would say that the younger, cheaper, more unknown second baseman should take over the job.

You can make a pretty solid argument that it’s solid baseball to trade Chase Utley, but that won’t help make it easier on many fans. Perhaps this will though- the idea of Utley celebrating his second World Series championship. Like Darren Daulton in 1997, Utley could be traded to a playoff bound team and get the opportunity to win a ring. The thought of that cherry on top of his career of greatness should make it a little easier to swallow saying goodbye again.

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