As noted several times in recent weeks, the Phillies hold the key to this summer's trade market. Set up to try to wring one more contending run from an aging core of players who helped them win five straight NL East flags from 2007-2011, they're a lousy ballclub thus far, albeit one with several players who would be of use to contenders. For the first time, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has publicly acknowledged that possibility, which makes this a good time to take a closer look at a key candidate for relocation, Chase Utley.
On Wednesday's pregame radio show on WIP, Amaro noted the team's upcoming games in Philadelphia against division rivals Atlanta and Washington, then conceded:
"If we continue to play the way we play sporadically, then I'm going to have to consider being a seller… If we think that we're going to be playing a little bit better baseball, [a] better brand of baseball, and this is going to be a very important next eight or 10 games for us because we're playing our toughest opponents in the division, we're playing the Pirates who are an outstanding club. So this will be a very good gauge for us as to where we're going to be and where we are come the All-Star break and as we get closer and closer to July 31."
Though they beat the Pirates after Amaro said that — thus completing their season series against them — the Phillies are still four games under .500 (41-45). More notably, they have the league's third-worst run differential (-43), which suggests they're worse than their record indicates. As previously noted, they have pending free agents such as catcher Carlos Ruiz, second baseman Utley and third baseman Michael Young who could be valuable for other clubs, and if they decide to trade Cliff Lee and/or Jonathan Papelbon, they could take a significant bite out of a payroll that ranks third in the majors behind the Yankees and Dodgers. Lee would instantly become the top player available on the market, though given the weakness of upcoming free agent classes in the wake of so many long-term extensions, one can understand Amaro's desire to keep him.
Likewise, Utley would probably be the top position player on the market if Amaro — who said recently that he views the 34-year-old five-time All-Star as "a Phillie for life" — is willing to put him on the block. Since Utley has a partial no-trade clause that gives him the ability to block deals to 21 teams, it would really have to be his decision as to whether he wants to go and to where. A California team would probably pique his interest given that he hails from the Los Angeles area, attended UCLA and lives in San Francisco, while ESPN's Buster Olney suggested that the Blue Jays would check in on him.
Though he recently missed a month due to an oblique strain, Utley is off to his best start in years, hitting .282/.349/.521 with 11 homers, as many as he hit in 83 games last year and in 103 games the year before. Indeed, he has averaged just 100 games per season over the last three years due to knee problems, and hasn't slugged above .500 or topped even 16 homers since 2009. He's still an above-average defender who's been worth about one win a year with his glove alone during his abbreviated seasons, and thus far he's been worth an impressive 2.5 Wins Above Replacement. If he's available, here's a closer look at his potential suitors, listed alphabetically.
I noted them as the best fits for Utley earlier this week. At 48-38, running second in both the AL East and the wild-card race, they're certainly contenders, in the hunt in spite of a glaring weakness at second base, where Ryan Flaherty, Alexi Casilla and others have combined to hit .232/.288/.352; the 640 OPS ranks 12th among AL second basemen. Brian Roberts returned to the lineup earlier this week after missing 79 games due to a hamstring tendon tear that required surgery, but the now-35-year-old second baseman has hit just .247/.309/.346 in 122 games since the beginning of the 2010 season due to a slew of injuries including a concussion. Acquiring Utley and using Roberts as a DH option -- their rotating cast at that latter position has produced a mere .203/.271/.400 performance -- could work. The question, aside from whether Baltimore interests him as a destination, is whether the O's have enough minor league talent to acquire him. Assuming Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy are off-limits, and they almost certainly are, the system is otherwise thin, with top position prospect Jonathan Schoop sidelined by a stress fracture in his back.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Geographically, they're a strong fit for Utley, and thanks to the recent contributions of Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez, they've climbed back into the NL West race; at 40-44, they're 3 1/2 games out in the NL West. Their second basemen (Mark Ellis, Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto) have combined to hit a thin .278/.329/.353 with four homers and 22 walks, and none is signed beyond this year. Even with a payroll above $200 million, the Dodgers are probably more willing than most to take on salary if it means holding onto some of their prospects, though they do have well-regarded Joc Pederson as a trade chip. The 21-year-old centerfielder, who ranked 85th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, is hitting .299/.388/.522 at Double-A, but he's blocked in a Los Angeles outfield that has four players signed through at least 2017. Another option: a significantly discounted Andre Ethier.
New York Yankees
Given the presence of Robinson Cano, the Yankees don't need a second baseman, but Utley's sporadic experience at first base (26 games from 2004-2008) instantly makes him a more attractive candidate than Young, Justin Morneau or any of the other pending free agent options I highlighted last week. Playing him at first is the equivalent of hanging a Picasso in the rec room, but the Yankees could definitely use his bat in their lineup. They can take on salary and while none of their outfielders who ranked among BA's Top 100 prospects (Mason Williams, Tyler Austin and Slade Heathcott) is having a particularly good season, they've also got a potential rotation piece in Ivan Nova, who could fare better outside the AL East.
With a 50-36 record, the A's have shown that last year's division win was no fluke; they lead the AL West by half a game and have the league's second-best record. That said, they could really use a middle of the order hitter since last year's big bats, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, aren't supplying anything close to the same level of production. Additionally, they're getting just a .261/.339/.326 showing from their second basemen (mostly utilityman Eric Sogard). They're in the Bay Area, and while their farm system has taken a hit — ranking 25th according to both BA and BP — they could offer a cost-controlled pitcher such as Dan Straily or A.J. Griffin while hoping that the injured Brett Anderson can manage another late-season comeback along the lines of last year.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants have lost 11 out of 13 while scoring just 2.0 runs per game, a nosedive that has plunged them to a fourth-place tie in the NL West with a 39-45 record. This may not be their year, but with Utley making his home in San Francisco, it makes sense to consider what he could bring to the lineup, not only for 2013 but beyond, particularly given the organization's taste for veterans. Second baseman Marco Scutaro has been one of the team's most productive hitters (.312/.365 /.408), and he's also got some versatility; the Giants could move him to third base, where he has 113 games of major league experience including 15 last year, and offer up Pablo Sandoval, who's hitting just .264/.303/.384 and who may be wearing out his welcome given his weight-related issues. Kung Fu Panda will be 27 in August and is signed through next year for just $8.25 million; his presence could make it easier for the Phillies to trade Young as well.
Toronto Blue JaysWith winter acqusitions Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis failing to live up to expectations, the Jays are getting an AL-worst .222/.256/.321 line from their second-sackers. Their farm system took a hit with the R.A. Dickey and Marlins blockbuster trades, but even so, they ranked 13th in Baseball Prospectus' organizational rankings and have pitching prospects such as righties Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna and lefty Sean Nolin who placed on one prospect list or another. Whether Utley's willing to go north of the border to a team hovering below .500 (41-44) is another question, one that could make this a longshot.