There is one person that can bridge the gap between the sabr heads and traditional baseball followers. There is one man who can bring together the stat-obsessed and the scout-worshipers. There is one player who everyone universally believes is completely and totally awesome.
His name is Chase Utley. And no matter who you are, you really, really like him.
Utley has long been the most valuable player on the Phillies, despite having never come close to winning an NL MVP award. His offense, defense and base-running ability, all at a premium infield position like second base, has made him a unique and rare talent.
When healthy, Utley is one of the five best players in baseball. No one disputes this.
Which is why, after two and a half years riddled with injury and decreased production, the 2013 version of Chase Utley offers so much hope.
The following comes with the caveat that it is still early in the season, but Utley’s .333/.395/.636/1.031 slash line through 38 plate appearances so far this year is incredibly impressive and exciting. But to really understand how good Chase has been so far this year, one must look beyond the numbers.
For the last two years, injuries to Utley’s knees sapped him of his extra-base power. Utley went from a slugging second baseman to a guy who could muster no more than warning track power on most occasions. However, now Utley is doing this.
Last year, both balls likely would have died at the warning track. This year, they’re 430+ feet home runs to straight-away center.
But beyond the power, it’s clear Utley’s knees are better than they have been in years, allowing him to leg out triples and steal three bases already this year. And his defense remains among the best at second base.
Hanging over all these positive developments is the reality that Chase’s contract is up after this season. Utley has been among the greatest bargains in baseball, but the end of his 7-year, $85 million deal signed in 2007 is now here. And the Phils will soon be faced with a tough decision.
Do they let go of a player that will turn 34 next year and has a degenerative knee condition that could flare up again at any time? Or are they encouraged enough by him so far this year that they make sure Utley remains a Phillie for the rest of his career?
Most of the time, the wisest course of action would be to jettison a player when he reaches the stage Utley is at now. And there are numerous reasons not to re-sign him.
But as everyone knows, conventional wisdom does not apply when talking about Chase Utley.
If Utley had started off the season slowly, and yes, it is still early and one cannot draw too much from just nine games, it would be a lot easier to say goodbye to Chase. But he is playing comparable to how he was in 2008, and really does appear more energized and fully healthy.
It’s a safe bet that the Phils would love to keep Utley. Aside from the Yankees’ Robinson Cano, who is going to command a deal large enough to choke five horses this offseason, Utley would be the best second baseman on the free agent market. And, other than Freddy Galvis, there really are no better short-term options in the farm system.
There is still lots of time for further evaluation. But as the trade deadline approaches in July, the Phils are going to have to make a choice.
If they’re out of the race (which it’s doubtful they will be), do they trade the player that would likely bring back to them the greatest return in prospects? Do they keep him and just let him go after the season? Or do they try to get a contract extension done before then?
How much Utley do the Phils need to see before making a decision on whether to extend his deal?
The Phils’ front office, much like the fan base, will have a hard time separating their hearts from their heads on this one. I know I do. A large part of me would like to see the Phils keep him forever and let him retire a Phillie. His hot start makes that even more enticing.
But the analytical part of me knows that, if the Phils are out of the race on July 31, the team should probably trade him, even if he is playing incredible baseball.
And, who knows? Maybe the Phillies could trade him, get the prospects, and then re-sign him in the offseason. Stranger things have happened.
But if Utley keeps playing this well and his health remains good, the smart money says the Phils get an extension done with him well before the trade deadline even becomes an issue. Utley is so good and so valuable, everyone concerned is certainly looking for an excuse to keep him a Phillie for the rest of his career.
For once, extending a Phillie veteran would actually be a smart move.