Chase Utley is enjoying quite an offseason.
He’s hanging out at Disneyland, having a day with the singer from OneRepublic and their families. He’s in Dubai, talking about robot umpires. He’s on social media, celebrating the Hall of Fame induction of his buddy, Jim Thome. He’s out golfing at Justin Turner’s charity golf tournament (and outgolfing Turner, according to the host). He’s going viral, making Eagles hype videos with the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Sadly, there has been tragedy. Utley’s Instagram response to the loss of his friend and former Phillies teammate Roy Halladay was heartfelt and succinct, and led much of the reaction coverage to the great pitcher’s untimely death.
The only thing Chase hasn’t done is ink a new contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his club for the past two seasons and change. Yet Utley’s working out at Dodger Stadium, prepping for a spring that starts with the arrival of pitchers and catchers at Camelback Ranch on Feb. 13.
He is confident, it would seem, that a deal will get done.
Is Utley’s return to the Dodgers a done deal?
Many think it’s only a matter of time. Chase also signed late in the spring in 2017, inking a deal on Feb. 10. There’s not necessarily a sense of urgency.
The bring-back-Chase camp has reason to be optimistic. On Jan. 27, Michael Duarte of NBC LA tweeted from the Dodgers’ Fan Fest that “GM Farhan Zaidi said there’s been a lot of discussions with Chase Utley and there’s a strong possibility he returns to LA if all parties can agree on a role.”
A complete reading of Zaidi’s remarks regarding Utley, however, are more ambiguous. Rowan Kavner’s notes on MLBlogs included this Zaidi quote:
“We’ve had conversations (with Utley). He’s obviously had a huge impact on this organization the past couple years in the clubhouse. We do have some young players we need to get more at-bats for and create more opportunities for, and at second base we have a multitude of options there … but if we can get together on a role and what the opportunity looks like, obviously his impact on the clubhouse is something we’d love to have moving forward.”
What is Zaidi supposed to say? He is presumably negotiating with Utley and his agent, Wasserman EVP Joel Wolfe (the same guy who landed Giancarlo Stanton his mega-deal with the Marlins in 2014). He’s not going to bang his fist on the wall and insist that Utley’s coming back, come hell or high water.
Zaidi’s also not going to chuckle and say, “We really aren’t interested in a 39-year-old middle infielder who’s slashed .235/.310/.382 with below-average range at second base over the past three seasons.”
You can’t close the door on the Silver Fox. He’s a lefty bat on a team that would probably like some more options from that side of the plate. Utley also has an impeccable, well-documented relationship with his teammates.
Here’s what Justin Turner had to say about Utley back in August:
“We have a quality group of guys who understand that the goal is to show up every day and figure out how to win a game that day and not worry about the past or what’s ahead of us, and I think a lot of that comes from Chase Utley. It’s how he goes about his business, and that rubs off on everybody on the whole team. You see every night from us, the details that the guys use to play the game, and the fight and the relentlessness and the belief, and it starts at the top with [manager Dave Roberts], but it comes to the players from Chase, and that has a trickle-down effect on everybody in the clubhouse.”
Chase Utley may have saved the Dodgers as we know them
Let’s go back in time for a moment. Think about August 2015, when Utley came to Los Angeles.
The Don Mattingly era was spiraling to an end. Molly Knight had just published her excellent book, The Best Team Money Can Buy, detailing the organization’s dysfunction. The Dodgers were inexplicably struggling to score runs and would be no-hit twice in 10 days before the end of the month.
A post on the late, lamented Just A Bit Outside summed up the situation well:
“But, of course, not every team is equal, and given the Dodgers’ resources, it feels like they should be doing better. It feels like they should be almost unstoppable, unless they were to be brought down by injuries, like the Nationals. One could reasonably assert that the Dodgers should be running away with things, and that it’s worrisome they’re still fending off the Giants. The Dodgers might not make the NLDS. It’s unlikely, but very possible. Things just feel underwhelming. Observers feel it. The players themselves feel it.”
Sure, Los Angeles won 92 games and the NL West in 2015, but were bounced out of the NL Divisional Round by the Mets. About the only memorable thing to happen in that series was Utley’s infamous hard slide in Game 2.
Clean play or not, it was the kind of fire that the Dodgers had too often turned on themselves.
Over the next two seasons, Utley played a key role in refocusing a team that appeared to be on the verge of wasting a lot of high-profile talent. It’s been thoroughly reported that Chase helped them take serious strides towards their ultimate goal.
So with all due respect to Utley, what he has meant to this team, his legacy in the game and the passion that both players and fans have for his work: do the Dodgers really want to bring him back in 2018?
Debating Utley’s L.A. future
Most of the arguments in favor of an Utley deal are based on his intangibles, and there is something to that line of thinking. What he’s taught this team will always be appreciated.
But the next step is to actually be champions. Utley’s 19 hitless plate appearances in the postseason do not paint the picture of a player who can contribute in October. He struggled to contribute down the stretch, too, and his Fangraphs charts expose him as a once-outstanding fastball hitter who no longer puts good wood on the heater (or the slider, for that matter). That’s a problem.
His plate discipline and swinging strike numbers are about the same as they have been throughout his career — he’s simply an older player who’s lost his pop. There’s no reason to expect that will change as he gets even older.
Nor should we expect his range at second base, which has fallen off the table over the past several seasons, will suddenly improve, either.
So what, then, are the arguments for re-signing Utley?
Utley’s (probably) an inexpensive lefty bat off the bench.
The most reasonable argument, in my opinion. He was paid $2.25 million in 2017. The Dodgers are currently about $20 million below the $197 million luxury tax threshold, according to Spotrac.com. Los Angeles wants to stay under below the tax limit to open the door for a big 2018 offseason (Eric Stephen at True Blue LA has a good explanation of why this is important). Chase is presumably not asking to break the bank.
And — as things stand in February — what are the other, immediate options? Free agent 2B Neil Walker, a switch-hitter who posted very good numbers from the left side in 2017 (.279/.376/.478), is out there. He also made $17 million for the Mets and Brewers last season. Nope.
There aren’t many interesting left-handed-hitting free agent middle infielders out there right now, and the current 40-man roster is very thin on lefty swingers. Utley could have a role here.
Utley can play three positions.
Well, sure. Obviously he’s capable of playing second base, although are plenty of players on the current roster who can, as well.
Last season, the Dodgers seemed like they led the league in guys who could sneak a game at second when needed. Austin Barnes, Logan Forsythe, Kike´ Hernandez, Chris Taylor and Utley, along with since-departed Charlie Culberson, all logged keystone innings in 2017. And while no one wants to see Turner at second, old Redbeard has played 132 games as the 2B in his career, too.
Utley can play first, but, barring injury, newly-buff 1B Cody Bellinger won’t need many breaks. Yasmani Grandal, utility man Rob Segedin and Forsythe can also cover for Bellinger.
Turner may need the occasional breather at third. Forsythe and Segedin can handle spot duty there, as well.
These scenarios also fail to consider a move. What if the Dodgers decide to chase a player like the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, one of baseball’s best-hitting catchers? Los Angeles certainly has a fat pipeline of catching prospects that could entice the Jeter gang.
Realmuto lost his arbitration hearing and will cost a cool $2.9 million this season. He wants out of Miami. Picking up Realmuto could move Grandal to the bench or out the door. Barnes could play more 2B. Forsythe to spell Turner more often. Heck, Realmuto can even play first base. The ensuing lineups are a lot stronger, and more flexible, than another year of Utley.
The fact that Zaidi has not inked Utley this late in the offseason make me suspect he’s waiting to see if this type of deal can be swung before committing to Chase. But, as mentioned earlier, the timeline last year was similar, so…stay tuned.
Utley’s a leader.
Also true: he’s passed along his coveted knowledge to the likes of Turner, Corey Seager, Hernandez and others. The Dodgers suddenly have a core of playoff-hardened veterans who play the Utley Way.
The entire spiritual focus of Utley’s tenure in L.A. has been his ability to show his hometown team (he’s from Long Beach) how to approach the game the right way. Chase earned the undying respect and admiration of a man who literally dresses like a banana. The torch has been passed.
What’s next for Chase Utley?
Tough to say. I’d love to see Utley as a coach. Rumors flew that he was being considered for a position on Gabe Kapler’s staff in Philadelphia last winter; he wasn’t, and all the stories did was suss out that Utley wouldn’t have been interested anyway (as per Ken Rosenthal).
In fairness to Chase, his 2017 midsummer numbers weren’t bad: from June 26 to Aug. 4, he slashed .276/.338/.517. Maybe the trick is limiting his innings to the point where he can get warm, stay fresh and live in that productive zone for as long as possible.
I’m not trying to troll or be overly negative. I respect the fact that a lot of fans feel a strong attachment to Utley — and these same fans often feel a strong attachment to Andre Ethier, too, and now to Matt Kemp, and they don’t want to see the guys they love and respect go away. I like all of those guys, too.
The hard truth is that there are legitimate reasons to have serious reservations about Utley, the ballplayer, at this point in his career.
But supply and demand are real things in baseball, and the Dodgers need both a lefty bat and someone versatile enough to plug the occasional hole in the infield. The players love Chase. The fans love Chase. He’s not going to cost much.
Barring a trade, there’s really no reason not to bring him in. Sign him, I suppose.
I don’t love this option. But I will admit that it would be beautiful to see one of the best second basemen of this generation, a local guy, a UCLA star, go out as a World Series champion, taking that victory lap around Chavez Ravine, soaking in champagne and cheers, proudly wearing Dodger blue one last time.
(Follow Ben on Twitter: @BK77)