Finally ready to depart Phillies, Chase Utley returns to roots with Dodgers
Just a day after both team president Pat Gillick and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told radio stations that they expected Chase Utley to remain with the Phillies for the balance of the season, the 36-year-old second baseman agreed to a trade, ending his 13-year run with the Phillies. Via the deal, the Los Angeles-area native will join the Dodgers and rejoin shortstop Jimmy Rollins, his co-anchor in a middle infield that helped the Phillies to five straight postseason appearances from 2007 to '11, punctuated by a championship in '08.
In exchange for a fill-in for Howie Kendrick, who's out until at least early September due to a left hamstring strain, the Dodgers are sending the Phillies two minor leaguers, righty John Richy and super utilityman Darnell Sweeney. They will also receive $4 million to help cover the remaining $5.85 million owed to Utley—$3.85 million of his $15 million salary for this season, plus $2 million to buy out his club option for 2016.
Rumors of potential deals have swirled around Utley for the past few years, particularly as the 2013 trade deadline approached, when it appeared Utley would hit free agency once his seven-year, $85 million contract expired. Instead, he chose to stay, signing a two-year, $27 million extension in August 2013, but all that did was guarantee him a front-row seat to the Phillies' demise from perennial contenders to belated rebuilders. Had Amaro been willing to deal him, the combination of Amaro's notoriously high demands in exchange for his stars, Utley's remaining salary and his 10-and-5 rights, which allowed him to block any potential deal not to his liking, made it difficult to consummate a trade despite heavy interest, even as injury problems sapped the six-time All-Star's production.
That said, Utley looked virtually untradeable as the July 31 non-waiver deadline approached. After playing in 155 games last year, his highest total since 2009, and earning All-Star honors for the first time since '10, he hit a cringeworthy .179/.257/.275 for an MLB-worst 48 OPS+ before going on the disabled list on June 24 due to inflammation in his right ankle. He had sprained the ankle during a January workout, and it continued to hamper him during spring training and into the season, even as he downplayed its effect upon his performance. While he rehabbed from the injury, Amaro declared that Cesar Hernandez would be the team's regular second baseman going forward, but even given that note and Utley's declaration that he discovered a flaw in his swing, no team was willing to trade for him, sight unseen.
However, Utley's $15 million salary made him a prime waiver-period trade candidate. As his bat sprung to life once he returned, the Giants, Dodgers, Angels, Cubs and Yankees expressed interest, with nearly all of those teams declared the frontrunner for his services via at least one report. In seven starts and one pinch-hit appearance, Utley has gone 15 for 31 with five doubles and a homer, spotlighting his versatility not only via a two-run, pinch-hit double but also a start at first base, where he has 31 career appearances.
If the hot streak, which has lifted his line to a slightly less unsightly .217/.284/.333 for a 71 OPS+, didn't offer enough of an encouraging trend, further proof that Utley has turned the corner can be found via Statcast. Via MLB.com's Mike Petriello, the average exit velocity of Utley's batted balls has risen from 89.1 mph pre-injury to 94.3 since returning, while his average batted ball distance has increased by more than 25 feet. Even given the small sample size, those dramatic improvements offer hope that Utley can sustain some semblance of the form that made him one of the NL's top three players in WAR every year from 2005 to '09, and still worth an average of 4.0 WAR per year from 2010 to '14 even while averaging just 117 games due to a variety of injuries, including problems with both knees.
In Los Angeles, Utley will rejoin the 36-year-old Rollins, who was acquired via trade in December and has played 115 of the team's 120 games but has hit just .225/.278/.365 with 12 home runs and -6 Defensive Runs Saved. The 32-year-old Kendrick, who was acquired from the Angels in December in what was effectively a three-way deal with the Marlins, hit .296/.341/.418 before straining his left hamstring on Aug. 9 while trying to beat out an infield single. In his absence, rookie Jose Peraza, acquired in a deadline deal with the Braves and Marlins, made two starts before heading back to Triple A, with Kiké Hernandez taking the other six, plus one spelling Rollins.
With the lefthanded Utley in place, the versatile righthanded-hitting Hernandez, who has hit .303/.353/.510 in 170 PA overall and an off-the-charts .393/.457/.754 in 70 PA against lefties, can provide an occasional platoon complement while also being freed up to serve as an alternative to slumping centerfielder Joc Pederson, who came into Thursday having hit just .160/.303/.280 in 152 PA since the beginning of July. Worrying about how manager Don Mattingly will divide the time at second once Kendrick returns is engaging in pre-hatch chicken counting, given the myriad injuries the team has contended with thus far, though the team reportedly believes that Utley could additionally contribute at third base as well as first. For the moment, the addition of Utley means the departure of switch-hitting Alberto Callaspo, who was acquired from the Braves in the Juan Uribe trade back in late May. Designated for assignment, he was hitting just .236/.317/.279 in 260 PA.
On the Phillies' end, neither Sweeney nor Richy are upper-tier prospects. The 24-year-old Sweeney is a 13th-round 2012 draft pick out of the University of Central Florida who came into the season ranked 16th among the Dodgers' prospects via the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, and eighth via Baseball Prospectus. Splitting his time between centerfield and second base, with occasional duty in leftfield and at third base, Sweeney has hit .271/.332/.409 with nine homers in 522 PA at Triple A Oklahoma City. Scouts like his plus speed and athleticism, his up-the-middle versatility (though he's played himself off shortstop) and his ability to get on base. The big concerns are his tendency to swing and miss and his lack of success as a base stealer, though he's cut his strikeout rate from 25% at High A in 2013 to 22% at Triple A this year, and where he went 15 for 31 in steals at Double A last year, he's 32 for 45 this year. With Hernandez and the well-regarded Peraza ahead of him on their super utility depth chart (if such a thing exists, it does for team president Andrew Friedman, who got great mileage out of Ben Zobrist in Tampa Bay), Sweeney was a ways from the majors, but he’s already replaced Utley on the Phillies’ 25-man roster.
The 23-year-old Richy, the Dodgers’ third-round pick in 2014 out of UNLV, came into the year ranked 24th among Dodgers prospects according to BA. The 6'4", 215 pound righty has posted a 4.20 ERA with 7.6 strikeouts per nine in 124 1/3 innings at High A Rancho Cucamonga, a hitter-friendly environment. Via Baseball Prospectus’s Wilson Karaman, Richy throws a three-pitch mix featuring a heavy sinker that sits 89–91 mph, a curve that flashes as solid-average and a changeup. “The overall package doesn’t project as that of an impact starter, but the back end of a major-league rotation is certainly in play,” wrote Karaman. FanGraphs’s Kiley McDaniel concurred, calling Richy “a quick-moving #4 starter type” while noting that his fastball ranged 90–95 mph in college, and that he has good command of his three-pitch mix but “a head whack in his delivery.”
Beyond that pair, and the guarantee of a longer look for the 27-year-old Hernandez, who has hit .279/.351/.359 in 352 PA, the trade of Utley leaves Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard as the last players remaining from the squad that steamrolled the Dodgers in back-to-back NL Championship Series in 2008 and '09; the Phillies beat the Rays in the World Series in the first of those years, and lost to the Yankees in the second. Rollins was traded in December, and Cole Hamels was traded to the Rangers on July 31. The embattled Amaro, who could be out of a job once incoming club president Andy MacPhail takes over for Gillick later this year, also traded Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals on July 28 and Ben Revere to the Blue Jays on July 31. The returns on those deals, and particularly the Hamels package, which also sent away lefty reliever Jake Diekman and brought back five prospects, earned generally high marks.
The trade of Utley means the departure of a franchise icon, one whom The Philadelphia Daily News called the “most beloved Phillie in history” and one who, if there’s any justice, could someday represent the team on a bronze plaque in Cooperstown. Via my JAWS system for evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, Utley’s seven-year peak WAR of 49.1 is well above the 44.1 WAR average of the enshrined second basemen, and his JAWS (the average of his career and peak WAR) ranks 12th among all second basemen, 1.5 points below the Hall average but better than 11 of the 20 who are already in. If he's able to play a couple more solid seasons and get to 2,000 hits (no post-1960 expansion era player has been voted in below that number; Utley has 1,623), he's got a fighting chance at election. That's so long as the BBWAA electorate continues to evolve, since much of his value is tied up in defensive metrics that place him as the game's second-most valuable defender from 2004 to '12. Working against him is that he didn’t become a regular until age 26, which limits his career totals, and that he was grossly shortchanged in the MVP voting during his peak years, even by teammates Rollins and Howard, who won in 2006 and '07, respectively, both with significantly lower WARs than Utley, who never finished higher than seventh in the voting.
Utley is years removed from those arguments, and his Hall of Fame candidacy is years away as well. For the moment, he’ll try to adapt to leaving the only organization he’s known as a professional to join the team for which he grew up rooting. For what its worth, he’s hit a robust .320/.389/.613 in 167 regular season plate appearances at Dodger Stadium as a Phillie. The Dodgers can only hope he comes close to doing that well now that he’s on their side.