David Schoenfield asked for suggestions of Major League Baseball’s most important players going into the 2012 season. He, along with several who responded, listed some good candidates including Roy Halladay. I was surprised to see one name conspicuously absent, however: Chase Utley.
It’s easy to forget about Utley. He’s not flashy, he doesn’t speak up much at all, and he hasn’t been among the best players in the league in two years. His combined 9.3 fWAR in 2010-11 is barely more than his total in 2009 alone (8.2). He hasn’t played a single inning in Clearwater yet, and his playing time is expected to be reduced overall during the season.
However, I think a few factors, when taken together, make Utley arguably the most important player in baseball. First of all, he does everything: he hits (career .384 wOBA), he runs (64-for-68 stealing bases since 2008), he plays elite defense (MLB-best among second basemen +13.5 UZR/150). Utley was a five-tool player and, when healthy, still is.
Secondly, he plays at a premium position. It has historically been more difficult to find an Utley-caliber player at second base than at almost any other position.
Less than nine percent of the 701 seasons of 6 or more rWAR since 1950 have come from second basemen. Of the 61 instances, Utley is responsible for four of them. When he is his normal, healthy self, he is easily in the top-ten most valuable players in all of baseball. He is one of the few players that a team can ride into post-season contention and, when absent, can miss the playoffs entirely.
Of course, Utley’s knee injury is not one that will go away with time; rather, it is one that will get worse. So it is quite fair to say that Utley’s best days are well behind him and he is realistically a 4-5 win player in 450-500 plate appearances. The Phillies, though, appear ill-equipped to deal with replacing Utley whether in the short- or long-term. Michael Martinez is the front-runner to win the back-up infielder spot on the roster, fresh off of a -0.4 fWAR season last year. Freddy Galvis is next in line, but his bat is barely passable at the Minor League level despite his prestigious defensive abilities. Given the lack of depth here, I find it hard to imagine another team that is as unprepared to replace a star player than the Phillies are with Utley.
If the Detroit Tigers happen to find themselves without Miguel Cabrera, for instance, they will only be missing offense. Sans Utley, the Phillies lose a lot in all facets: hitting, base running, and defense. Further, it is much harder to find a suitable replacement there than at most other positions. Taking all of the above into account, it seems as if Utley is still arguably the most important player in baseball.
To quote our own Paul Boye, “prepare the ticker tape.”