We began our series of looking at the 2014 Phillies by previewing first baseman Ryan Howard. Today we’ll be looking at Phils second baseman Chase Utley. There are some similarities that Howard and Utley share, namely their corresponding primes, advancing years, declining statistics and recent injury history.
Chase Utley is a professional’s professional. He’s the type of player a team wishes they could field at every position. He’s dedicated, plays the game hard all the time, plays the ”right way” and has an extremely high baseball IQ. While he may not be a vocal leader Utley certainly leads by example every time he takes the field.
Up until the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline Utley had been rumored to be on the trading block as his contract was set to expire at the end of the 2013 season. At one point leading up to the deadline Ruben Amaro Jr. said everyone on the team was trade-able in the right deal. However it was widely believed that Amaro would seek a king’s ransom for either Utley or star pitcher Cliff Lee. Without a contract extension however, it appeared Utley could be moved. It was very unlikely the Phils would let him go for nothing – or at most, a first round compensatory pick if it wasn’t a top ten protected pick via free agency.
Shortly before the trade deadline Amaro announced the Phils were in negotiations to keep Utley and that he wouldn’t be traded. The deadline came and passed, and Utley was still a Phillie and still unsigned. The rumors heightened that a deal was in the works and sure enough word leaked out on August 7th the Phils had extended Utley for anywhere between 2-5 years.
That night in the 7th inning, Utley singled home John Mayberry to tie the score at two runs each. After a Michael Young walk moved Utley to second Kevein Frandsen lined a single to right field. Utley never hesitated as he rounded 3rd and headed for home. He was beaten to the plate by a perfect throw from Cubs RF Cole Gillespie and had a head-on collision with Cubs Catcher Dioneer Navarro in an attempt to jar the ball loose. Utley’s right knee looked as if it slammed into Navarro’s shin guard and everyone held their collective breath waiting to see if Utley was OK.
He gut up and dusted himself off and headed back to the dugout after being called out. Utley was fine, and the fans cheered wildly. It was the type of hard-nosed baseball Utley had become known and loved for by the Philly Phaithful. On August 8th it was made official as Utley and Amaro held a joint press conference to announce the contract details and to get each man’s thoughts regarding Utley’s “Phillie for life” tag.
n a complex contract filled with bonus and incentive clauses it basically breaks down as follows; Utley is guaranteed $27,000,000 over the next two seasons. After that, there are three one-year extensions that automatically vest if Utley makes 500 plate appearances in the previous season. In years 3-5 Utley will make $15,000,000 per season, and if he plays out the life of the contract he’ll earn a total of $75,000,000 with the included bonuses.
At the press conference to announce the extension Amaro was effusive in his praise for Utley. “Chase is everything we expect our Phillies to be. As we’ve said before, we see Chase as a true Phillie for life. This contract moves us toward that end. We couldn’t be more pleased.” Utley, who turns 35 in December, said, “I wasn’t trying to break the bank, I just wanted to be treated fairly with the marketplace that we’re in and I think it’s a very fair deal for both sides.” A couple weeks before the contract was announced Utley stated “I’ve never envisioned wearing another team’s uniform.” If he stays relatively healthy he won’t have to.
Much like Howard Utley’s numbers have dropped from his heyday of 2005-2009. In those five seasons Utley was unquestionably the best 2B in the game. For five years Utley was the model of consistent excellence posting a .301/.388/.535 slash line while averaging 29.2 HR’s, 101.4 RBI’s and 110.6 runs scored. He also averaged 39.2 doubles as part of the 73 extra base hits he averaged. Even in today’s game, for a middle infielder they were great numbers.
Utley averaged 150.8 games played in 2005-2009. Then came 2010 and Utley only played in only 115 games with a notable dip in his power numbers (16 HR’s, 38 XBH’s). The next two years Utley began the season on the DL as we learned he had two chronic knees. In 2010 – 2011 Utley only played in 186 of the teams 324 games. This past offseason Utley found a new workout regiment that has supposedly strengthened his knees and has kept him on the field the better part of the season. He did miss a month on the DL with a strained oblique, but in watching him run the bases and field his position the knees don’t appear to be bothering Utley. How his knees hold up over the next 2-5 years is anybody’s guess, and a gamble the Phillies were willing to take to keep him in the fold.
Utley is still a premier 2B and I don’t see any way the Phils could have upgraded the position had he left. Cesar Hernandez or Freddy Galvis would have likely taken his spot at 2B, but neither of them would likely produce anything close to the offense Utley continues to provide, especially in the power department. Also, among the Phils players with the 10 most PA Utley is the team leader in OBP. Though he’s missed 30 games this year Utley is still 2nd in SLG % and OPS, 3rd in HR’s and 4th in RBI’s when compared to the other 14 starting second sackers in the NL. The bottom line is that age 34 he’s still one of the best 2B in the business.
Utley has been a fan favorite and perhaps THE fan favorite on a team that won five straight division championships, two NL pennants and a Word Series. It’s natural for a player Utley’s age to be in decline, but he’s coming from such great heights and the decline isn’t so precipitous as to relegate him to being an average 2nd baseman or worse, but what will he give the team in 2014? Second base is a demanding position and the way Utley plays all-out, all the time could end up being his downfall if he re-injures a knee and has to spend significant time on the DL. Again, that’s the risk the Phillies are willing to take in attempting to not only field a contender next year, but to have Chase Utley be known as a Phillie, and only a Phillie.
This year Utley’s slash line is .275/.344/.475. It’s a marked improvement over the last two seasons where that line read .258/.353/.428. His home run production has slipped from one bomb every 19.92 AB’s during the 2005-2009 seasons to one per 26 AB’s this year. His last two seasons Utley’s HR power had dropped off to one bang every 30.48 AB’s. I don’t expect Utley’s power to improve from this season and if anything, the hands of time will start to affect his power numbers as it has every other aspect of his game. It’s the natural order of life in baseball, and as much as we’d like to think Utley can be an exception to that rule and return to his glory days, the reality is they’re in his past.
This season Utley is experiencing the worst defensive season of his career. Never a gold-glover Utley had always played above average defense. This year his .968 fielding percentage is the lowest of his career as Utley has committed 17 errors, his highest single season total since making 18 errors in 2006 – in 270 more chances. In 2005 – 2010 Utley had a 14.0 dWar (compliments of baseball-reference.com), averaging roughly 2.3 games above replacement value per year. For dWAR that’s excellent, especially up the middle where defense is so critical. In 2011-2012 playing in a reduced number of games Utley combined for a dWAR of 2.1, never dipping below 1.0. This year his dWAR is at 0.3, so along with the decline in offense we do see a corresponding decline in defense as well.
I would submit that Utley’s play has probably leveled off and you can expect roughly the same production from him next year as he gave the Phils this year. Perhaps with better protection hitting behind him he’ll get more pitches to drive, which could bring his offensive production up a notch, but we’re not expecting much improvement. As we noted earlier he’s still a top offensive 2nd baseman, but this year his defense has become quite average.
It’s hard to tell where Utley will or should bat next year. Batting 2nd seems to be the obvious place for his current skill set, and as a LHH it would be advantageous for Utley to work with the amount of space between the 1B and 2B when the leadoff hitter gets on first. Utley no longer possesses 30 HR potential or a .290+ BA to hit 3rd in the lineup, where typically a team bats their best all-around hitter. In 2013 that title belongs to Dom Brown, but if Brown sees any slippage next year that title could easily revert back to Utley. How to configure a lineup with five LHH, two RHH hitters and a SH will be one of the many challenges facing next season’s manager.
With Utley remaining relatively healthy most of the year it’s apparent he’s still a quality player who will help the team win games next year. He’s bounced back from a two-season stretch that was marred by injuries to reclaim his title as one of the games best second basemen. We expect him to continue at this high level, barring injury of course, for the 2014 season. The only 2B better than Utley available via free agency is Robinson Cano, and he’ll command an insane amount of money on the free agent market this year, and is expected to resign with the Yankees.
Bringing Utley back was the wise thing for the Phils to do if they seriously plan to contend next year. The in-house options would have all been serious downgrades, especially offensively. All things considered I’m happy to see Utley back and a Phillie for life.