Trying Not to Sound Greedy While Suggesting the Dodgers Need Chase Utley

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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.

Dodgers 7, Brewers 5: Your Annual Mark Ellis Leg Injury

mark_ellis_april2013_vs_pitStop me if you’ve heard this one before — Mark Ellis, off to a very good start to his season, hobbles off with a leg injury. I know, right? After all, Ellis missing time with leg trouble isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence, since it’s only happened in 2012 (46 days)… and 2011 (15 days)… and 2010 (39 days)… and 2009 (60 days)… and 2008 (11 days)… and 2007 (3 days). We jest, but seriously — the odds of him making it through his age-36 season without hurting his lower half were only slightly better than the odds of Chad Billingsley‘s elbow not blowing up.

All that being said, it’s a huge blow to a Dodger roster that absolutely did not need further injury concerns at the moment. Ellis had scored the first run of the night and was hitting .342/.363/.452 after he strained his right quad attempting to run out a grounder in the fifth, and while that stat line was never, ever going to be sustainable, he’d been a bright spot on both sides of the ball over the first month of the season. It’s a big loss.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of injury that almost always results in a disabled list stint. While we of course don’t know the severity of Ellis’ strain, Ruben Tejada missed 48 days last year when he did the same thing, while Mike Napoli was out for 35. In 2008, Alex Rodriguez strained a quad, and he missed 23 days. No word yet on how long Ellis will be out… but don’t hold your breath. This is almost certainly measured in weeks, not days.

That makes the infield more of a mess than it already was, though at least Hanley Ramirez is expected to begin his rehab stint this weekend and could be back as soon as early next week. With Ellis out, some combination of Nick Punto, Jerry Hairston, & Skip Schumaker will probably cover the keystone, and while that sounds pretty terrible, at least it might keep Hairston off of third base, where last year’s defensive issues have clearly not left him.

As for who might take Ellis’ roster spot, it remains to be seen. I imagine Elian Herrera is the most likely candidate for his versatility, yet I would not at all be against the idea of adding Alex Castellanos as a righty bench bat, especially since it seems Hairston won’t be available for outfield duty all that often.

That’s all to be sorted out, however. For now, this is just bad news on a club that really could do without more of that.

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All of this overshadowed what was a pretty eventful victory otherwise, especially for the Boston foursome who came over in the Punto trade last year. Josh Beckett was his usual homer-prone self, allowing two dingers and three earned runs over 5.1 innings, but Carl Crawford hit his second homer, drove in two, and scored twice, while Adrian Gonzalez drove in three on two doubles. The second one drove home Punto with the eventual winning run. I know we all miss Rubby De La Rosa & Allen Webster, but… so far, so good.

Beyond that quartet, Justin Sellers came up with two more hits — .224/.308/.293 isn’t that bad from him, all things considered — and Luis Cruz even got in on the fun with a hit of his own in the eighth. That all pales in comparison to the fact that Juan Uribe collected yet another walk, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t note that the much-maligned Ronald Belisario picked up strikeouts for three of the five outs he managed, even around Hairston’s fielding woes. Brandon League, pitching for the third day in a row, managed to get through the ninth with the usual amount of heartburn, though at least that was largely due to his own throwing error. If I never, ever have to live to see him again facing Ryan Braun with the tying run on in a two-run game, I will be completely okay with that.

Dodgers 7, Mets 2: The Mark Ellis Show

markellis_homer_newyork_2013-04-23Not long ago, someone asked me why I never write about Mark Ellis. After all, we spend so much time discussing Luis Cruz, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, etc., so why not Ellis?. The answer is simple — other than complaining that he doesn’t hit righty pitching that well, he rarely generates a story. He gives you solid defense, enough to carry generally mediocre offense, but he’s usually not so good or so lousy that he demands a great deal of attention. It’s not sexy, but there’s value in that kind of consistency.

That changes tonight, because Ellis’ big night was the highlight of a 7-2 Dodger victory that was closer than it seemed, given that it was a tie game after six innings. Ellis homered off both Robert Carson and Brandon Lyon — who apparently is still in the majors — following two singles off Jonathon Niese. But even saying “Ellis had four hits” doesn’t really do it enough justice, because his second single hit Niese in the lower leg and forced the New York starter out of the game in the third inning, which isn’t going to help the Mets bullpen for the remainder of the series.

So here’s to you, Mark Ellis, hitting your 100th and 101st career homers while quietly hitting .348/.370/.470 this year with the usual solid defense. The night is yours.

For once, the Dodgers didn’t have to point to a lone offensive contributor, even on a night where Carl Crawford was 0-5. A.J. Ellis, Matt Kemp& Adrian Gonzalez all got on twice; Justin Sellers had three hits of his own, and all of a sudden that .220/.316/.280 doesn’t look so bad, does it? Don Mattingly, apparently following my advice, stuck with Jerry Hairston & Juan Uribe at third base and got not one but two walks for his trouble. More than ever, I think Cruz might be getting DFA’d next week whenever Hanley Ramirez returns.

All of that offensive run overshadowed a second consecutive disappointing start from Clayton Kershaw, who lasted only five innings despite throwing 114 pitches. Kershaw actually breezed through 2 2/3 before inexplicably walking Carson — who was at the plate for the first time in the majors — and then Ruben Tejada with two outs in the third. Daniel Murphy & David Wright cashed in run-scoring hits, and while that’s all Kershaw would allow, he didn’t look like himself. Fortunately, the bullpen — Ronald Belisario, Paco Rodriguez, Matt Guerrier, & Josh Wall — threw four scoreless innings to retain the lead.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed that. Tomorrow brings Ted Lilly against Matt Harvey. Heaven help us all.

Dodgers Depth Chart Analysis: Not Exactly the Keys to the Keystone

Editor’s note: Chris Jackson continues his tour of the Dodger organization with second base. It’s, uh… well, you might want to take small children out of the room. I don’t know if there’s a single future big leaguer in here.

Second base is the bastard stepchild of minor-league positions. The common refrain is that this where teams stick their weakest infielders, knowing that they will never amount to much, while the good shortstops with weak arms just end up playing the keystone in the big leagues. That mantra does not quite work, however, when looking at some of the better second basemen in the Majors.

When this guy is still your best minor-league option at second base, you know you're in trouble. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

When this guy is still your best minor-league option at second base, you know you’re in trouble. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

The Yankees’ Robinson Cano only appeared at shortstop 80 times in the minors, while playing 395 games at seond base. The Angels’ Howie Kendrick never played shortstop, instead playing 360 games at second and seven at third. Milwaukee’s Rickie Weeks was exclusively a second baseman for 208 games before being called up. Guys who did fit the stereotype of shortstop-turned-second-basemen include the Dodgers’ own Mark Ellis (351 at short, 31 at second), the Diamondbacks’ Aaron Hill (234/2) and the Reds’ Brandon Phillips (572/115).

All this really proves is that there is no way to identify who will someday become a big-league second baseman, while also showing that ignoring the guys in the minors at second would be foolish. At least in most cases, but …

Then there are the Dodgers, who have stacked up such an uninspiring group of second basemen on the farm that Ellis might as well plan out his future finances to include the Dodgers exercising his option for 2014. (Unless they go out and spend more GG moolah on free agents Cano or Hill, but there’s eventually gotta be a limit … right?)

Prepare yourselves for the big steaming pile of “meh” that awaits:

Elian Herrera: Last season’s token “out of nowhere” guy, Herrera went from .341/.381/.520 at Albuquerque to shining briefly in Los Angeles before eventually settling back into being what he is, a mediocre utility player. The 27-year-old has a minor-league career line of .285/.365/.397, with 238 games at second base, 110 in left field, 86 in center, 66 at shortstop, 60 at third and 15 in right. He pretty much is what he is, a utility player on a second-division team, which means he only gets back to Los Angeles if the injury bug turns into an epidemic.

Rusty Ryal: One of the many random infielders signed as free agents by the Dodgers this off-season, Ryal is a former Diamondback best remembered by L.A. fans for hitting a line drive off Hiroki Kuroda. He hit a perfectly pedestrian .263/.318/.402 as a reserve for Arizona in 2009-10 before shuffling off to Japan in 2011 (he was a disaster) and slinking back to the minors in 2012, where he put up a middling .257/.294/.384 line between Reno and Gwinnett (Braves). He will have to fight his way through a crowded list of players to make the Isotopes in 2013.

Joe Becker: A good guy, perfectly defining the concept of a blue-collar, overachieving player who came out of nowhere and somehow got all the way to Triple-A. Becker, 27, was a non-drafted free agent out of the junior college ranks back in 2007. He has steadily worked his way all over the system, playing second, short and third, always filling in as a backup wherever he is needed, sometimes on moment’s notice with some serious jet-lag.

Rafael Ynoa: The one guy that got some people excited late in 2012, mainly for his Arizona Fall League performance (.330/.374/.515) that seemed to come out of nowhere. Still, he was left unprotected during the Rule 5 Draft and was not selected, which could more of a sign of his actual standing both with the Dodgers and baseball in general. A fine fielder, Ynoa, 25, has played 365 games at second and 130 at shortstop since signing out of the Dominican back in 2006. He has a little speed, no power, and profiles essentially as another Herrera, albeit less versatile than his countryman.

Scott Wingo: The Dodgers popped the 23-year-old out of South Carolina in the 11th round in 2011 after he had won the College World Series with the Gamecocks. They challenged him by sending Wingo to the California League in his first full season, but found him lacking (.246/.367/.337) beyond some decent defense and the ability to take a walk (56 total). Wingo does not offer much power and is not particularly fast. Despite his high draft status, he is basically just another organizational player.

Jesus Arredondo: A native of Mexico, Arredondo signed out of nowhere last year and will be 22 next month, so he hardly qualifies under the header of “prospect.” He hit .254/.305/.340 at Great Lakes, finishing with zero home runs and 13 stolen bases.

Kevin Taylor: The backup to Arredondo at Great Lakes, Taylor, 21, was a 36th-round draft pick out of a Nevada junior college in 2011. He hit .240/.284/.317 with the Loons and will have to fight for a roster spot somewhere in the organization this spring.

Malcolm Holland: Most high school players drafted in the 33rd round opt to thank their teams and head off to college. Not Holland, who joined the Dodgers in 2011 and played a lot against older competition as a 20-year-old at Ogden. Holland hit .244/.421/.275, showing some impressive plate discipline (54 walks versus 47 Ks) and speed (44 stolen bases), but little power or hitting aptitude. He played 36 games at second base and 23 in center field, so for the future he probably screams utility player, but he is young enough that if the Dodgers can get his bat going, he could be the closest thing they have to a sleeper.

Zachary Babitt: A college senior drafted out of Division II Academy of Art (yes, it’s a real school in San Fran), Babitt was the Dodgers’ 10th-round pick last summer. Sure, he was signed because they saved money on him that they spent elsewhere, but every team needs bodies to fill out the lowest levels of the system. Babitt, 23, hit .254/.389/.271 against much younger competition in the Arizona League. He will be lucky to make it out of Camelback this spring.

Next up: Shortstop, because if this entry did not make you want to spend a week at your local brewery, well, it sure will!

2012 Dodgers in Review #7: 2B Mark Ellis

.258/.333/.364 464pa 7hr 2.9 fWAR B

2012 in brief: Injury-prone veteran – wait for it – got injured and missed about six weeks, but generally provided quality defense and adequate offense.

2013 status: Will earn $5.25m in final year of two-year deal and is likely to return as starting second baseman.

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You know, it’s interesting. I can’t really say Ellis was good, you know? His .313 wOBA was merely tied for 16th with Omar Infante among all second basemen with 450 or more plate appearances, and that’s hardly something to be proud of. He was particularly troublesome after returning on July 4 from Tyler Greene‘s attempt to destroy his leg, hitting only .251/.314/.364 in 310 plate appearances, which is actually pretty lousy.

Yet… B. That’s for a few reasons, I think. First, his defense was as good as advertised, topping second basemen in UZR/150, and while I’m well aware of the difficulties in existing defensive metrics, I think we can all agree that it passes the sniff test. Second, it’s hard to ignore how much of a mess the position was when he was out, as the team attempted to patch with various combinations of Adam Kennedy, Jerry Hairston, Elian Herrera, and sometimes even Ivan De Jesus. And finally… well, remember how poor he was in 2011 (.288 OBP between Oakland & Colorado) and how little we thought of him when he was signed:

Mark Ellis is coming off a .288 OBP and is the proud owner of a better wOBA than Jamey Carroll exactly one time going back to 2006, yet he’s going to pull down about a million dollars more per season than the Carroll contract we didn’t even particularly like. Ellis was once a solid player with some pop, hitting double-digit homers each year between 2005-09, but that’s declined precipitously as he’s aged and been injured, averaging 33.5 days on the disabled list over the last four seasons. (h/t to pal Jay Jaffe on that stat.) Ellis is pretty one-dimensional now, since he doesn’t get on base well, doesn’t have a lot of power, and only has real value in his defense. Age and injuries – particularly leg injuries, which is what Ellis has had – can do a lot to diminish an infielder, so if Ellis suffers even a little with the glove, that’s going to make him a trouble spot, quickly.

Ellis wasn’t able to avoid the leg injury, of course, but he did manage to prove his toughness by coming back in only about six weeks after the injury that was reported at the time to have nearly cost him the leg entirely. Despite that, he didn’t lose any effectiveness in the field and showed at least a mild improvement in his on-base skills over 2011, and so it’s hard to argue with a three-win player at second base, particularly when Carroll fell apart in Minnesota.

I’ll admit that I carry some of the same concerns into 2013, as Ellis heads into his age-36 season, and again, wasn’t that great. But honestly, I think I’d be a lot more okay with it if the roster can be constructed in such a way so that Ellis doesn’t have to hit first or second in the lineup – because that’s what second basemen do, you know – since as a solid-glove #7 type, he’s fine. It’d also be nice if they could find a platoon partner who could help ameliorate his inability to hit righty pitching (.612 OPS vs .877 against lefties), though somehow I doubt Don Mattingly will see him as a platoon player.

Still, all in all a successful season given expectations. Except, I feel like I’m forgetting something. What was it…?

Unfortunate memory captured for posterity by Chad Moriyama

Oh, right. That.

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Next up! Nick Punto arrives to fill the Aaron Miles Memorial Roster Spot For Gritty White Guys!