Over the last few weeks, the Dodgers have gotten a lot sorted out, as evidenced by the massive charge they’ve made up the standings. Ricky Nolasco is in town to solidify the rotation, though it remains possible they’ll still look to add another starter. Carl Crawford is healthy while Yasiel Puig is here to stay, which along with Andre Ethier‘s newfound flexibility means that the outfield is more than set, even with Matt Kemp‘s questionable health. Hanley Ramirez has shortstop locked down. Juan Uribe has been shockingly not-awful at third base. A.J. Ellis & Tim Federowicz make for an effective catching duo, while Adrian Gonzalez keeps on humming at first. The bullpen remains a concern that will likely be addressed, though having a more consistent rotation should help with that somewhat.
You’ll notice that the only place I didn’t touch on there was second base, where Mark Ellis & Skip Schumaker (along with a bit of Nick Punto) have combined to contribute a .254/.316/.318 line along with lousy fielding, giving the trio a collective -0.7 fWAR that’s among the worst in baseball. Schumaker isn’t hitting (.281 wOBA) and is an atrocious defensive second baseman; Ellis is hitting even worse (.279 wOBA, easily the worst of his career), and is suddenly disliked by fielding stats, which peg him at -1.9 UZR/150. We know of course that a half season of defensive stats isn’t the most trustworthy metric in the world, so don’t go overboard on that, but he is 36 with a long line of health concerns, and it does pass the eye test. He’s already made four errors; he hasn’t made more than five in a full season since 2005.
So if the Dodgers want to further upgrade their lineup, the keystone is a good place to start, and…
…well, look. This is greedy, perhaps obscenely so. I know it’s greedy. “Oh, your stacked offense that has more outfielders than they know what to do with and a shortstop who is outhitting even the mighty Puig might have a soft spot at second base? Let’s let Don Draper reply for the rest of baseball.” I get it, I do. I get that the recent trades we’ve liked are less about Ned Colletti suddenly being smart and more about Guggenheim money being able to buy its way around giving up good prospects, which is how you get Nolasco for some relief prospects and Ramirez for Nathan Eovaldi — because the Dodgers ate their entire contracts. To now say, “hey, let’s go get one of the best second baseman of a generation,” as I’m about to, well, I get why other fans suddenly hate us all now.
That all being said, the Dodgers have a hole at second base, and the means to do something about it. Like it or not, that’s the reality, so that’s what we’ll go with. I don’t need to tell you how lousy the second base market is — no, I don’t want Daniel Murphy — so let’s stick with Jon Heyman’s not-really-a-rumor: hey, what about Chase Utley?
On the surface, the fit is obvious. Utley’s a Pasadena native who went to high school in Long Beach and college at UCLA, even being drafted by the Dodgers back in 1997 before deciding to go to school, and he’s owed something like $7 million for the rest of the season before becoming a free agent. Between 2005-09, he was one of the preeminent second basemen in the game, compiling a massive 37.7 fWAR in just five years.
Of course, injuries have held him back ever since. In 2010, he missed nearly two months thanks to thumb surgery. In 2011, his season didn’t start until May 22 because of right knee trouble; last year, he didn’t get on the field until June 27 because of left knee problems. His knees have been fine this year, but he also just missed a month because of a strained oblique.
So to say that Utley is fragile as he nears 35 (on December 17) is a bit of an understatement, and perhaps this is not the kind of medical history that a Dodger team already being crushed by injuries really needs to add. Yet through all the aches, he’s managed to stay incredibly productive. For example, the .338 wOBA he put up during his injury-plagued 2011 was his worst mark since he became a full-time starter in 2005… yet it’s still better than all but two years of Ellis’ entire career. On top of that, he’s still viewed as an elite defensive second baseman, where as we’ve seen, Ellis’ reputation is beginning to take a hit there. (And Schumaker should never be allowed to man the position at all, especially with Ramirez as his double-play partner.)
While it feels like Utley is broken-down and well past his prime, the numbers say otherwise, as we saw late in June when he pounded Dodger pitching for five extra-base hits in four games. Over the past calendar year, Utley has hit .267/.358/.463 in 583 plate appearances with 20 homers, 17 steals, and excellent defense. That’s good for a 5.6 fWAR season, and if you’re thinking that I’m starting to talk myself into really, really wanting Utley right now, well, you’re right. He’d be a massive improvement over Ellis on both sides of the ball, he’d lengthen the lineup even further, and if he likes playing in Los Angeles so much that he’s willing to sign a short-term / high-value deal after the season, well, that just saves us from worrying that the Dodgers are going to be the team dumb enough to give Robinson Cano $200 million.
The question, as always, is this: what is the cost? Phillies GM Ruben Amaro likes to say things like “Utley is a Phillie for life,” but he sounds like he’s begun to soften on that as the team has drifted out of the race, even before the news came down that Ryan Howard will now miss months with knee surgery. Utley’s value is limited somewhat by his health and the fact that he’s a rental, but his production, status as a Phillies legend, and the need to compensate the Phillies for the qualifying draft pick they’d lose by not retaining him means the price won’t be cheap — especially when contenders like Baltimore, Oakland, Kansas City, and others could badly use him too.
When the Dodgers traded for another over-30 Philadelphia hero coming to the end of his contract last year in Shane Victorino, it cost them good-but-not-elite pitching prospects Josh Lindblom & Ethan Martin, as well as since-released non-prospect Stefan Jarrin. Utley’s worth more than Victorino, obviously, but I don’t believe the Dodgers are trading Zach Lee, Corey Seager, or Joc Pederson for a rental. So, assuming they eat all the remaining salary, that’s maybe… Chris Reed, Garrett Gould, & Darnell Sweeney? Or Reed, Duke von Schamann, & Jon Garcia? Maybe have Dee Gordon involved if the Phillies plan on moving Jimmy Rollins or think Gordon can play second or center? It’s incredibly difficult to try to guess what an appropriate prospect package is because of all the factors involved, though I’ll say that assuming Lee, Seager, & Pederson aren’t at play here, there’s not really anyone else in the system I consider untouchable. (Although I do like Ross Stripling more and more every day, and would prefer to hang on to him.)
The only other problem here, really, is what might come attached to Utley, because he’s not the only valuable Philadelphia asset. Fortunately, the presence of Gonzalez means that Amaro can’t pawn off Howard’s atrocious contract — arguably the worst of all time — on the Dodgers, but if Amaro is willing to deal Utley, you imagine he’s all too happy to kick in Michael Young as well, which is my worst nightmare in so many ways. You could say “but hey, Cliff Lee would be nice in the rotation, wouldn’t he?” but then you wonder if Colletti looks at Jonathan Papelbon as the bullpen solution because he has “saves,” and what’s one more time of pushing Kenley Jansen out of that role, right?
If the deal becomes a package for more than Utley, then obviously the potential returns I spitballed above change significantly, and there’s still no guarantee the Phillies will even entertain offers for him. But if they do, I imagine that out of respect they’ll at least ask Utley where he’d like to go, and I can’t imagine he’d decline to head home for a team with a chance to win right now. The Dodgers have a hole at second base, and there’s only one man to fill it. Come on home, Chase.