Hit and Run: Picking landing spots for Utley; Heyward making hay
1. The Chase is on
According to multiple reports, Chase Utley cleared waivers on Monday, meaning the Phillies' longtime second baseman can now be traded to any team and would be eligible for the postseason if acquired before the close of the waiver period at 11:59 p.m. ET on Aug. 31. While Utley is a six-time All-Star, the clearance owes something to his combination of age (36), dismal 2015 season (.196/.266/.298 for a 57 OPS+ and -1.0 WAR), recent injury (six weeks on the disabled list due to inflammation in his right ankle) and the money remaining on his contract (around $4.5 million). Philadelphia could have just saddled a team that claimed him with the remaining tab, which would have been an unceremonious exit for a franchise icon, but an overdue one nonetheless given the team's belated rebuilding effort.
Utley has shown signs of life since returning from the DL on Aug. 7, collecting hits in each of the five games since and going 7-for-17 with three doubles and three RBIs in what's been a mini-showcase of his potential versatility. He's started at second base three times, though Cesar Hernandez's play in his absence has basically provided the evidence that Utley's future is elsewhere. Utley has also made one start at first base, a position he has played sporadically in his career (24 starts and 31 appearances), and he came off the bench to hit a two-run double in Sunday's 5–3 win over the Padres. He's been a beast as a pinch-hitter during his 13-year career (.333/.416/.621 with five homers in 77 PA), though 34 PA and three of those homers came all the way back in 2004, his second big-league season. He's 9-for-22 with three extra-base hits in that capacity over the last five years—a small sample size, but enough to suggest he could be a weapon in that capacity.
By clearing waivers, Utley buys more time to prove he's healthy, and potential trading partners have more time to decide if he fits their needs. It also means that no team can block another from acquiring him, as could have happened with regards to the Giants and Dodgers or Blue Jays and Yankees if either trailing team had enough interest to put in a claim before Monday's deadline. Here are some potential matches for Utley, listed in no particular order:
• Giants: San Francisco, which recently lost All-Star second baseman Joe Panik to the DL due to lower back inflammation, is known to have scouted Utley recently, and the team's urgency could be increasing: Panik reportedly is at least a week away from swinging a bat and thus won't be ready to return when eligible on Aug. 17. Victims of a four-game sweep by the Cubs this past week, the Giants are 2 1/2 back in the NL West race and 3 1/2 back in the wild card; via Baseball Prospectus, the defending world champions' playoff odds have fallen from 57.4% to 30.5% in the last 12 days.
• Dodgers: Los Angeles, which leads the Giants in the NL West, lost Howie Kendrick to the DL on Monday, but the team now has a chance to take a look at prospect Jose Peraza, who was acquired in the July 30 blockbuster with the Braves and Marlins. The Dodgers will also get Justin Turner back from the DL this week; both he and fill-in third baseman Alberto Callaspo have extensive experience at the keystone, though nobody is turning cartwheels at the quality of their defense from that spot. Kiké Hernandez has less experience at second (16 major league games), but his hot bat (.285/.336/.508 in 143 PA) makes him worth a look that could preclude a trade. Still, money is clearly no object for the Dodgers, and Utley, who has 10-and-5 rights (10 years in the majors, the last five with the same team) that could scuttle a potential deal, is a Los Angeles-area native, though at last report, he and his wife live in Sausalito, near San Francisco.
Speaking of California, the Angels—who are a game back in the AL West and two up for the second wild card—have been mentioned as having interest as well. Johnny Giavotella has done a solid job with the bat (.270/.318/.360 for a 95 OPS+), but his -12 DRS suggests the team can still do better, though Utley's once-stellar DRS is at -7 himself. The Halos could find at-bats for Utley at first or DH in order to give Albert Pujols a breather as well.
• Blue Jays: Speaking of contenders with a second base regular on the DL, revamped Toronto could use Utley. Rookie Devon Travis has been outstanding when available (.304/.361/.498 and 2.5 WAR), but he's currently amid his second DL stint for a left shoulder strain and isn't expected back before early September. The Jays, who have won 12 out of 13 to climb within half a game of the AL East lead and take the wild card lead, recently traded for Cliff Pennington (.254/.340/.350), who's better suited to a utility role than starting.
• Cubs: Chicago, which at 63–48 holds a 3 1/2-game lead over the Giants, has also shown interest in Utley. As noted on Monday, manager Joe Maddon recently juggled his lineup, moving Addison Russell from second base to his natural position of shortstop and benching Starlin Castro. The Cubs also moved Chris Coghlan from leftfield to second to make room for the big bat of rookie Kyle Schwarber, though on Monday, Castro made his major league debut there over the final four innings. Maddon said after the game that second would be Castro's primary position going forward, though given that he's been the lineup's weak link (.235/.271/.303 for a career-worst 59 OPS+), Chicago could still use an upgrade.
• Yankees: The other team that's been connected to Utley is New York, which has seen its once substantial lead over the Jays evaporate amid a 1–5 skid during which the team has scored just eight runs. Incumbent Stephen Drew has 14 homers, but between his otherwise dreadful offense (.192/.259/.384) and defense (-5 DRS), he's been right at replacement level; given last year's similarly awful performance (-0.3 WAR), it's no mirage. Drew and the four other players the Yankees have tried at second have accumulated -13 DRS to go with .203/.258/.375 hitting—a combination that’s been even worse than Utley, in the grand scheme. New York can certainly afford him, and may need him as badly as any team here.
Will Utley ultimately be traded? The guess here is that he will, but perhaps not until closer to the Aug. 31 deadline, when teams are forced to reckon with their final chance to upgrade, and when the Phillies may be even more desperate to move him.
2. J-Hey making hay
At the plate, on the bases and in the field, Jason Heyward had an adventurous night in the Cardinals' 4–3 win over the Pirates on Tuesday, continuing a hot streak that has him well-positioned for the winter—whether he signs an extension to remain in St. Louis or tests free agency.
Just about everything Heyward did in that game was highlight-worthy in one way or another. Facing Jeff Locke in the first inning, he was initially called out on the back end of an inning-ending 3-6-3 double play, but the call was overturned via instant replay, allowing Kolten Wong to score the game-tying run. In the top of the third, he just missed a leaping catch of Gregory Polanco's deep fly ball, though he appeared to prevent a home run; the ball glanced off his glove and the padding of the wall and turned into a triple, though Polanco soon scored to give the Pirates a 2–1 lead. In the bottom of the frame, Heyward continued to torment Pittsburgh first baseman Pedro Alvarez by eluding a tag and diving into first safely:
That infield single loaded the bases with one out, but it went for naught. In the fifth, Heyward followed walks of Wong and Jhonny Peralta with an RBI single off Locke, the first run of a three-run rally that flipped the score from a 3–1 deficit to a 4–3 advantage that proved decisive. With the win, the Cardinals (72–40) restored a six-game lead in the NL Central over the Pirates (65–45).
Heyward, who turned 26 on Aug. 9, is getting notice for swinging a particularly hot bat since the All-Star break (.350/.404/.488). In truth, he's been consistently distancing himself from a wretched April (.217/.261/.349) by batting .308/.365/.452 since, though he hasn't homered since going deep in three straight games from June 21 to 24. Overall, he's hitting .289/.344/.430 with nine homers and 18 steals in 20 attempts; his 112 OPS+ is one point below his career mark. He's been typically outstanding in rightfield as well, as both his +12 Ultimate Zone Rating and his 13 Defensive Runs Saved lead major league rightfielders. Via the latter, his 3.8 WAR is tops on the Cardinals and 10th among NL position players.
Acquired last November in a deal that sent Shelby Miller to the Braves, Heyward is slated to become a free agent after the season. He and the Cardinals have yet to engage in substantial talks regarding a contract extension, but that hasn't been a sore spot for Heyward, who told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold:
"Both sides want to make sure everybody is happy. That’s really what they’ve been asking me about the whole time. ‘Hey, you like it here? Hey, you comfortable?’ They want to make sure I feel at home, make sure I can be myself, and that’s been their focus. They’ve allowed me the time to fit in. That has meant a lot.
…I feel like they have a very structured organization, and from what I can tell they handle things when they should be handled, and now baseball is what’s supposed to be handled.”
If he does reach free agency, Heyward could be the most attractive options among a tantalizing crop of impact-level corner outfielders. Since his debut at the start of the 2010 season, his 28.3 WAR trails only Jose Bautista's 31.5 among left or rightfielders. Alex Gordon, who was having a strong season before suffering a severe groin strain in early July, is third at 26.1; he holds a $12.5 million player option for '16, but as he heads into his age-32 season, he’s likely to seek a bigger payday. Justin Upton, who's two years older than Heyward, is eighth among that group at 19.3 WAR. Currently hitting .252/.332/.447 with 20 homers, a 120 OPS+ and 3.5 WAR for the Padres, he offers more power than Heyward, though he's got just one season worth more than 4.0 WAR under his belt, compared to Heyward's three (both appear likely to reach that plateau this year).
Yoenis Cespedes, who didn't debut until 2012, also offers more power but is almost four years older than Heyward (he turns 30 on Oct. 18). Though he hasn't entirely hit his stride yet with the Mets—all three of his extra-base hits since his July 31 trade came in the same game, on Aug. 3—he's hitting .290/.319/.490 with 18 homers and has already set a career high in WAR at 4.2. While he doesn't have the full six years of service time to qualify for free agency, his contract has a clause that forces his team to release him at the end of this season. Additionally, they cannot make him a qualifying offer, which could set him apart among this group.
Thanks to his youth, defense and durability, Heyward compares favorably to those mentioned above, though it wouldn't be a surprise at all if the Cardinals entice him to stay. He's not exactly in the same position as current teammate Matt Holliday, who was acquired from the A's in the middle of his walk year in 2009 and wound up re-signing after testing free agency. But playing for a juggernaut with a perennial shot at the postseason is as good an advertisement for a return engagement as it gets.