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At 34 Years Old, Chase Utley Still Ranks Among the Elite

The Phillies signed Chase Utley to a two-year, $27 million contract extension last Thursday. It was received with muted enthusiasm, something one normally wouldn’t expect when the franchise’s cornerstone player is all but guaranteed to play out the remainder of his career in Phillies pinstripes. The concerns were legitimate, though: keeping Utley meant not trading him, which meant not getting valuable prospects to bolster one of the league’s weaker Minor League systems. Though committing to Utley for only two years is about as risk-free as it gets, the contract will go through his age 35-36 seasons, and Utley has a rather thick medical file. Between a torn thumb ligament in 2010, patellar tendinitis in 2011, patellar chondromalacia in 2012, and a ribcage injury this year, Utley has only been able to play in 390 of a possible 605 games (64 percent) dating back to the start of the 2010 season.

What Utley has shown this year, though, is that when he is healthy and able to consistently take the field as close to 100 percent as he gets, he still ranks among the games best players at his position. Considering the issues the Phillies face at many key positions going forward (catcher, third base, right field, bullpen, just to name a few) and the fact that there aren’t any Major League-caliber prospects in the system, Utley’s remarkably good 2013 campaign is a breath of fresh air and bodes well for the near future.

With a 3-for-4 performance against the Braves last night, Utley improved his weighted on-base average to .368, placing him in a tie with Robinson Cano for second-best among all second basemen in the Majors, slightly behind Matt Carpenter and just ahead of Jason Kipnis. Utley’s wRC+, which adjusts for league and park factors, is 135, just behind Kipnis at 136 and below Carpenter at 140. His WAR (via FanGraphs) is 3.5, fifth-best among second basemen with at least 350 plate appearances. Prorated to 600 plate appearances, Utley ranks first at 5.7, ahead of Carpenter at 5.5 and Kipnis at 5.0.

At an average annual value of $13.5 million, Utley’s extension pays him like a 2.5-WAR player. Utley has been 3 WAR or better in each season dating back to 2004, when he posted 1.4 in 287 PA. Even when his knee injuries robbed him of his power and mobility, he still posted 2.5 WAR in his sleep.

The most impressive part of Utley’s season has been the revival of his power. He has a .226 ISO, his highest mark since posting the same in 2009 — that year, he hit 31 home runs during the regular season and an additional six in the post-season. In fact, he isn’t too far from his career-high of .249, set in 2005. Dan Uggla has the second-best ISO among second basemen this season at .204; Cano comes in third at .201. If Utley was able to take 675 PA like he averaged from 2005-09, he would be on pace for 28 home runs.

As for base running, he has been less aggressive than in years past — Baseball Reference lists him as having taken the extra base in 43 percent of opportunities compared to his career average 58 percent — but he is still a positive asset in that regard. He has stolen seven bases in nine attempts (78 percent) and has a chance to finish with double-digit stolen bases for a sixth consecutive season.

Likewise, while Utley’s defense has waned over the years, he still grades out as an above-average fielder by any set of defensive metrics (which should be taken with a grain of salt, particularly in single-season samples) or scouting reports. Utley’s age and injury history have certainly limited his range, but his ability to play defense well was never reliant on range. Rather, as John Dewan pointed out four years ago, Utley positions himself in varying ways depending on the hitter and the situation. While a player like Brandon Phillips gets all of the accolades for making flashy diving plays, Utley simply gets to most of the balls he should get to and converts them into outs better than most other players at his position. In other words, fielders like Phillips don’t have Utley’s acumen, but do have the athleticism to make up for it which makes for more memorable plays.

Utley’s contract also has three vesting options, one for each of the 2016-18 seasons at a price of $15 million per season. The options vest if Utley reaches 500 plate appearances in the previous season. If an option doesn’t vest, it becomes a team option at a price between $5-11 million depending on how many days Utley spent on the DL. It is not obvious, but these options are incredibly good for the Phillies because the only big concern with Utley is his propensity to land on the DL. If he gets 500 PA, great, the Phillies dodged that bullet and it makes it all the more appealing to keep him around another year. If he doesn’t , the team has the option to reject his option and move forward with someone younger. At a maximum of $15 million, Utley’s salary will never hamstring the team the way Ryan Howard‘s $25 million salary has already.

Since August 6, Utley has 13 hits in 29 trips to the plate. Though it is certainly an arbitrary starting point, it along with the extension signed on the 8th, shows exactly why the Phillies are in a great spot with their situation at second base right now. It may take a little while to address the other positions appropriately, but this was a great positive first step as the Phillies attempt to reinvigorate the roster.