It’s difficult to imagine life before – or without – Chase Utley manning second base for the Phillies. Even as he battled through numerous injuries, his absence was constantly noticed and discussed. There was no settling period. It certainly didn’t help that his fill-ins were, in some order and volume, Juan Castro, Mike Fontenot, Michael Martinez, Pete Orr, Cody Ransom and Wilson Valdez. Even Freddy Galvis’s slick glove wasn’t quite enough to make us all forget that, no, that still wasn’t Chase out there.
So now, as we approach the end of Utley’s seven-year, $85 million contract, the final reality of his departure finally seems, well, real. This isn’t an injury to eventually return from, and that’s a bit scary.
In the post-Jackie Robinson era, only Tony Taylor and Granny Hamner have played more games at second base for the Phillies, and neither of them has donned red pinstripes since 1976 and 1959, respectively, making Utley the face of second base for multiple generations. Consider: no Phillies second-bagger has more home runs, doubles, runs scored, runs created or rWAR than Utley, and none has a higher OBP (min. 300 games), among a number of another top-five appearances on various club leaderboards.
You get it. This is the same song we’ve been singing for a while. Now, though, the threat of the Utley Era coming to its end is bearing down upon us.
But I’m not convinced of that. In fact, I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum: Chase Utley will sign a contract extension before season’s end, and it will be his last Major League deal. He will retire as a member of the Phillies on this deal.
It’s easy to write off such thinking as quixotic; some rose-colored drivel powered by emotion far more than rationality. Such claims would have merit, especially as they apply to me and my admiration of Utley, but I feel like I’ve taken enough time to think about this and still feel like this is not only a rational outcome but a likely one.
You can see some tidbits above that help to illustrate how important Utley is and has been to the franchise. The only places his contributions may have been understated would be Most Valuable Player and Gold Glove ballots.
But historical value alone is not a reason to retain a player. If we all waxed poetic over every impending free agent, the likelihood of this team ever improving would likely decrease. No, there’s something else at work here.
First, let’s acknowledge the risks we’re talking about here. Utley turned 34 this past December and has two frail knees; knees that have cost him in the neighborhood of 130-140 games the past two seasons. The Phillies are also desperate to stay under the luxury tax threshold, and Utley will cost more to retain than Freddy Galvis and whoever they find to be a backup or to work in tandem.
As a brief aside, don’t even let your mind wander to Robinson Cano. That’s a fella guaranteed to get far more money than the Phillies can give, should he even reach free agency.
As things currently stand, the Phillies will have holes at catcher, second base, third base and, presumably, corner outfield to fill next offseason, in addition to a starting pitcher vacancy if Roy Halladay leaves. There will be money to spend, however; Cole Hamels is due for a $3 million raise and Ryan Howard a $5 million bump, but the Phillies will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million to spend on filling out the roster, assuming the same budget (it’s worth noting that the tax threshold is set to be raised by $11 million, from $178M to $189M, in 2014).
That’s not an unlimited amount of money, but the retention of Utley given those restrictions not only still feels important, it also feels feasible and practical.
Utley’s final year under his current deal will pay him $15,285,714, a number he will not earn again. Even if he plays a full, healthy year and puts up numbers comparable to those we as Phillies fans are used to – at least in the vein of what he did in 2011-12, when on the field – his next contract will not pay him $15M in AAV. Granted, a lot depends on Robinson Cano’s yet-unsigned “next deal,” which may become the precursor for any Utley talks. Cano is, with little doubt, the top position player prize on the free agent market (as things currently stand) following the 2013 season in a modestly deep but fairly weak free agent class. Utley, if he stays healthy, could be second-best overall and is certainly second-best in an unimpressive second base group, especially with Ben Zobrist likely to be re-upped on option.
Couple that with a less-than-stunning bushel of trade chips and the alternative seems to be Freddy Galvis: starting second baseman. Now, from a defensive standpoint, Galvis resembles peak Utley. The drop-off there would be negligible. Offensively, though, there would be a problem. Galvis posted a .326 OBP in 464 plate appearances for Double-A Reading in 2012, the highest of his professional career. His .727 OPS there was also the highest he posted at any Minor League stop. Over the past three seasons, Utley has averaged a .367 OBP and .800 OPS at the Major League level. Even as Utley ages, the overlap between the offensive production he and Galvis would provide isn’t likely to be great in the next two to three seasons.
From my perspective, Freddy Galvis stands to be an excellent defensive replacement during his Major League career; a fine bench player. Should he learn to competently play more positions, he could become even more valuable with defensive super-utility. Chase Utley is not done, at least not until his knees demand he be. Utley will cost more, and will come with the perpetual worry of re-injury. But he is, realistically, the best second base option for the Phillies both this season and in 2014. As long as he is healthy, he and the Phillies should continue operating with the symbiosis that has given them both (in addition to the fans) so much. Ideally, I’d like something for two years and $18-24 million with a vesting third year, but whatever the final figures, he’ll get signed.
And that’s what will happen.