Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley could be returning to the place from whence he came:
The hot corner.
This doesn't mean that Charlie Manuel is about to pencil Utley into his lineup at third base as quickly as he possibly can, mind you, but such a move may be an option in the near future.
I figured I'd give it a try just to get back over there, get my feet wet, just get a feel for the position again. It could be an option in the future. It's way too early to have an opinion either way on how it's going to go. I might take some more ground balls in the future. But I think if I'm able to play over there, it could create some more flexibility as far as the organization is concerned. It's just something I wanted to give a try and I may do it again.
Essentially, Utley may be willing to take one for the team by moving to third base, a position where the Phillies lack a solution both in the short term and the long term. He also could have it in mind to do his balky knees a favor by establishing himself at a position that doesn't require him to patrol the middle of the field or put himself at risk covering second base on double plays.
In theory, anyway. Third base is a position that requires much quicker footwork, which Utley's knees may not be able to handle day in and day out. In addition, opponents would no doubt take to testing Utley by sending a few bunts his direction.
But according to the Philadelphia Daily News, Utley isn't acting on his own. He's approached Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. and asked him whether some playing time at third base is a realistic eventuality.
From the sound of things, Amaro did little more than shrug.
It makes sense that Amaro wouldn't jump at the possibility. Utley hasn't played third base on a full-time basis since he was in Triple-A in 2002, and he didn't exactly play well at the hot corner. In 123 games, he made 28 errors. He moved to second base the next season.
Plus, there's the possibility Amaro may have a better solution for the Phillies' third-base quagmire. In a perfect world, he'd acquire New York Mets six-time All-Star David Wright and stash him at the hot corner for the foreseeable future. Moving Utley to third base could complicate matters as far as that possibility goes.
Wait, what? Isn't this a little random?
Not entirely. It was less than a year ago that ESPN's Jayson Stark told Mike Missanelli on 97.5 FM in Philadelphia (via MetsBlog.com) that the Phillies were practically drooling over the idea of acquiring Wright:
The Phillies like David Wright. They have talked about David Wright. Are they really going to be able to make a deal for David Wright? Are the Mets really going to deal him to the Phillies? I mean, those are big questions. But, I’ve heard David Wright’s name for some time. Whether it happens is another story. But, the Phillies like him. … It would have to be a gigantic deal. And, where are the pieces left in the Phillies system to make that deal? … It’s unlikely, but don’t ignore it, because the Phillies have talked about it.
The Phillies should be coveting Wright. He has an .856 OPS against them in his career and an .891 OPS in his career at Citizens Bank Park. Considering the kind of pitching the Phillies have had in recent years, numbers such as these are impressive.
Obviously, nothing happened this winter, and one assumes the Mets don't regret the fact that nothing happened. Though he's cooled as the season has gone along, Wright is in the middle of his best season in years. He entered Thursday's matinee against the Phillies hitting .315/.408/.511 and is presently tied with Andrew McCutchen for second in the National League in WAR, according to FanGraphs.
But choosing to keep Wright around in 2012 was easy. Keeping him around in 2013 and beyond will be a little more problematic.
The Mets hold a $16 million option on Wright for 2013, and they're all but assured to exercise that. If the Mets want to keep Wright beyond 2013, however, they'll have to hammer out a contract extension.
Mets GM Sandy Alderson recently told a gathering of season-ticket holders that extending both Wright and R.A. Dickey, who also has an option for 2013, is a top priority.
“It’s not our intention to simply rely on those options and go into next season and deal with their free agency after 2013,” Alderson said, via the New York Daily News. “We’re going to deal with it up front while we still have a little bit of room to maneuver. But we’re committed to trying to bring those two back. I hope they’ll both be back and I’m excited about the possibilities they will be.”
If something is going to get done, it's going to have to get done this winter. According to the New York Post, Wright isn't going to negotiate a new deal during the 2013 season, as has been the case throughout the entire 2012 season.
If something doesn't get done this winter, all sorts of possibilities open up. One of them involves the Mets falling out of contention and choosing to get what they can while they can for Wright in the form of a trade.
Naturally, that's a possibility that third base-needy, Wright-coveting teams like the Phillies are hoping for.
This leads us, admittedly, in a roundabout way, back to Utley.
Though Amaro and even Utley himself seem to be on the fence about the idea, it's not hard to imagine Utley playing third base on a full-time basis (as full-time as his knees will allow, anyway) in 2013. The move could help keep him healthy, and stashing him at third base would allow Freddy Galvis or—more likely—a free-agent acquisition such as Kelly Johnson to play second base.
If the Phillies do stash Utley at the hot corner for the 2013 season, they could be in a position where they would still have the desire to trade for Wright if he were to become available, but without a place to put him.
Add that to the fact that the organization is still light on prospects even after its recent activity at the trade deadline, and you have a foundation for a highly unlikely trade.
Factor in the fact that the Phillies and Mets play in the same division, and you'd have a trade that's simply not going to happen.
If Wright is going to end up in a Phillies uniform, it's going to happen after the 2013 season is over. If he and the Mets can't hammer out an extension this winter, Wright will become a free agent at the end of next season and the Phillies will be one of many teams with his agent's phone number on speed dial.
And conveniently for the Phillies, Utley will also be a free agent after the 2013 season is over.
Utley is signed through 2013 at $15 million, and that's likely to be his last season in a Phillies uniform. The only way the Phillies are going to invite him back is if he shows in 2013 that he can stay healthy for a full season, and even then they're not going to bring him back unless he agrees to a short-term deal worth significantly less money than he's being paid now.
It's more likely that the Phillies will wave goodbye to Utley and look to use the $15 million they had committed to him toward Wright. There's a chance that they'll have an additional $20 million available if Roy Halladay's option for 2014 doesn't vest (see Cot's Baseball Contracts for the details). Either way, Halladay will be gone by 2015. Jimmy Rollins could be gone by then too if his option doesn't vest.
So contrary to the way things are right now, the Phillies are going to have the financial wiggle room they require to pursue Wright as a free agent in 2013. They won't have as much wiggle room as the Boston Red Sox now have, to be sure, but they'll have enough to pursue Wright.
In a nutshell, here's the answer to our big question: Moving Utley to third is not going to take the Phillies out of the Wright discussion.
Moving Utley to third base in the near future or in 2013 is not going to compromise the Phillies' chances of signing Wright as a free agent. And since a trade between the Mets and the Phillies in 2013 is highly, highly unlikely to begin with, the Phillies shouldn't worry about effectively blocking such a trade by installing Utley at the hot corner.
So if they think he can handle third base, they should go ahead and move him there. The Wright factor may as well be a non-factor.
Truth be told, whether or not Utley will even be able to hold his own at the hot corner is the bigger question here.
...And I suspect you all feel the same way.
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