Should the Philadelphia Phillies Trade Franchise Cornerstone Chase Utley?
Chase Utley is one of the greatest players in Philadelphia Phillies history, yet suddenly, with a season going nowhere and an aging roster in need of a serious reboot, Utley has become one of the most polarizing players as well.
The summer is slipping away in Philadelphia, and there are months to go before a meaningful football game will be played. There is only so much talk of the offseason moves by the Flyers and Sixers that Philly sports fans can take. The Phillies, and all their warts, dominate the airwaves.
The hot topic has shifted from "buy or sell" to "who can we sell," with Utley being one of the top names—and hottest debates—on the list.
The Phillies have been the alpha dog in town since winning the World Series in 2008, mostly because the fans believed the baseball team had the best chance to bring another title to a city that has hosted just one parade in the last 30 years. People in Philly will never forget that parade, in part because it meant so much to the town and in part because of Chase Utley's epic "world f*cking champions" speech on the dais.
Utley was a hero on that championship team before his three-sheets-to-the-wind speech at Citizens Bank Park, but he became an instant legend after it.
As wildly inappropriate as it was—someone think of the children, and all that—Utley said what everyone in town was feeling. F*cking finally, or as the team put on as many t-shirts as they could print…Phinally.
Is it time for the Phillies to move on from Chase Utley?
Utley had just three hits in that World Series, batting .167 in the five-game series over Tampa Bay, but on the strength of two home runs, five runs scored and four driven in, he has long been considered one of the 2008 World Series heroes.
It's hard to explain to people who don't live around Philly how much Utley has meant to the city. There is seemingly at least one kid named Chase in every grade school classroom in the area. Hell, my next-door neighbors named their dog Utley. Is there a more fitting honor than that?
For some reason—for many reasons—fans in Philadelphia aren't able to let that guy go, even though that guy, and at least that player, has been gone for a long time.
The 2008 World Series was a blessing for Philadelphia, but the aftermath has felt like something of a curse. The team overspent on far too many contracts, paying too many players more than it should have as a thank you for helping bring a title to the town. The Phillies gave Jamie Moyer a sweetheart deal after the World Series, so it was no surprise when someone as important as Ryan Howard got $25 million per year for what feels like eternity.
The Howard contract, more so than the other megadeals that have come since to the likes of Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, has felt like a tightening noose around the neck of the franchise.
And yet at times over the last four seasons, it has felt like Utley, more than Howard or any other player, has been the one holding the team hostage.
Fans seem willing to accept (or excuse) the fact that Utley's knee injuries set the team back in spring training for two straight years, forcing management to make decisions with the roster it may not have done had Utley been healthy or, at the very least, more forthright with his inability to get on the field.
Freddy Galvis looked like he could be the replacement to Jimmy Rollins before the 2012 season, but the Phillies decided to re-sign Rollins to a fair-market deal in part because nobody knew what the hell was going to happen with Utley.
A few seasons later, and nobody seems upset that Rollins may be dealt, despite his long-standing, deep connection to Philadelphia and the Phillies franchise, but it feels like half the city is up in arms about Utley moving on.
This should not be an emotional decision. This should be about baseball, for all the players, but especially Utley.
When he is on the field, there are few players better than Utley at any position. Utley will certainly go down in history as one of the best second basemen of his generation, but his inability to stay in the lineup is as much a part of his career narrative as his production when he's there.
Since 2010, Utley has played in 355 of a possible 570 regular-season games.
Over the last three-and-a-half seasons, Utley has been out of the lineup for 215 games, a number that equates to missing an entire season and a third of another.
Let's face it: Utley has made it pretty easy to calculate his value over a replacement player when the Phillies have needed a replacement for him so damn often. (Note to SABR heads: It's a joke. Sadly.)
There is no denying the value Utley has provided to the Phillies in his career and how he has been able to maintain that production despite missing so much time. From Todd Zolecki at MLB.com:
Utley, 34, is the heart and soul of the clubhouse, respected by everybody that has pulled on a uniform. He is in the final year of a seven-year, $85 million contract. He missed a month this season because of a strained right oblique and missed much of the previous two seasons because of knee injuries, but he is hitting .284 with 10 doubles, two triples, 11 home runs, 30 RBIs and an .866 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. If Utley had enough plate appearances to qualify, his OPS would be tied with Robinson Cano for the third best among second basemen in baseball. His .517 slugging percentage is his highest since a .535 mark in 2008.
Filed under the rule of "that's baseball," through 84 games, the Phillies were 25-30 with Utley in the lineup and 15-14 with him out, according to Baseball-Reference. As good as his numbers have been this season, they haven't meant a whole lot in terms of victories. Of course, that hasn't always been the case.
In 2012, the Phillies were 43-38 in games Utley started and 38-43 in games he didn't. The year prior, when the Phillies won a franchise-best 102 games, the team was 64-36 (.640) when Utley started and 38-24 (.612) in the other games. In 2010, they were 68-46 (.596) in his starts and 29-19 (.604) over the rest of the season.
Maybe it all means nothing.
Since reaching back-to-back World Series, winning one in 2008 and falling to the Yankees despite Utley's best efforts to almost single-handedly secure another title—he had a ridiculous 1.448 OPS and 22 total bases in 25 plate appearances over the six games—the Phillies are 228-150 (.603) in regular-season games Utley starts and 120-100 in the others (.545).
(Note: The Phils are actually 230-156 (.596) in games Utley plays and 118-94 (.556) in games he does not appear, but factoring in pinch-hit appearances or late-inning replacements didn't seem as practical.)
The Phillies have been a much better team when Utley is in the lineup. There is no debating that, especially when you factor in the production of the players the Phillies have employed in his stead.
Still, before the end of last season, which saw Roy Halladay shelved, Ryan Howard also out with injury and a rash of other roadblocks back to the playoffs, the Phillies had a winning percentage in the games without Utley that would have qualified them for the playoffs each of the previous two campaigns.
The Phillies have been better with Utley, but until last year, the team was always still good.
Now, even with Utley, it's hard to consider anything "good" about this Phillies team. Sure, there are some good parts—Cliff Lee, for example, is still good—but the sum of all the parts leaves something to be desired.
Why not, then, trade some of those good (read: valuable) parts before it's too late?
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is certainly entertaining offers for whatever parts he has worth value to potential playoff clubs. Hovering just outside the playoff race for most of the season, the Phillies have been at or below .500 for most of the year, needing to make up eight games on a field of four teams vying for the wild cards in the National League. Time is running out.
If the Phillies want to make a run at the National League East, they have to make up 9.5 games on the Braves and 2.5 games on the Nationals. In other words, if the Phillies play .700 ball the rest of the season, they would finish with 95 wins, which means the Braves would still win the division by one game based on their current winning percentage on the season (.590).
Remember, the Phillies are notoriously a second-half team. Still, even the run in 2010 to go from 41-37 to 97 wins saw a late summer surge of .667 baseball. Last season had the Phillies in last place at this time and their second-half run got them to 81-81, but even that run, while nine games over .500, was just a .556 winning percentage
This Phillies team is not capable of playing .700 baseball the rest of the way, or even .600 baseball the rest of the way, which probably still wouldn't be good enough to pass the teams in line for the two wild-card positions.
This team is as mediocre as its record states, which is why it makes sense to dump the players who might bring back something in return. Utley may have value, even in a low-level prospect, which will give the team more in return than him playing out the string at second base for as many more games as his body can tolerate this season.
The Phillies have made a lot of bad moves under Amaro, but few would be as ridiculous as re-signing Utley to be the starting second baseman next year. Utley will surely be seeking a multi-year deal, and the idea of the Phillies entertaining the notion of paying Utley tens of millions of dollars over multiple seasons, when he can't even make it through a full season in his early 30s, is a recipe for disaster.
As important as Utley has been to the city, it's time to let him go in hopes that he still has enough value to bring something back in return.
Hell, even if he doesn't, it might make sense to give him a chance to win another ring with a contender this season as a thank you for years of service. If, you know, you're into that kind of sentimental stuff.
The Utley that was a borderline Hall of Famer isn't coming back, even if his numbers—when healthy—suggest he could. The Phillies can't afford to bring him back next year as a player they would need to rely on to play every day. He isn't that guy anymore. They aren't that team anymore.
Sentiment has no place in the business side of baseball, which is a concept the Phillies front office failed to understand when handing out post-World Series contracts the last five years. The team needs to rebuild, and if Howard's contract precludes them from trading him, they should look to get as much value from the other players around him as possible.
Sure, it will be strange to see a middle infield without Utley or Rollins, or someone other than Carlos Ruiz behind the plate every day, but those are the realities of the game when a roster gets too old and injured to stay competitive. Letting those players go won't be easy, but the time to deal with that reality has drawn near.
Fans can debate who is to blame for the Phillies' downfall—Howard's contract or Utley's knees or Rollins' lack of hustle or Ruiz's suspension or Halladay's shoulder or a shoddy bullpen or Amaro's other wheeling and dealing or Charlie Manuel's old-school managing—but the fact remains that the team that brought the city its first title in a generation is no longer there.
Some of the same parts may still be hanging around, but the time to officially move on looks to have resoundingly arrived. That means Utley too.
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