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Phillies in a Bind With Utley

All the Phillies can do now is hope that rest and rehab heals Chase Utley‘s right knee. He has yet to play in a game this spring due to tendinitis, though his lack of response to treatment has caused deeper worry. This morning the Phillies said that they’re continuing “non-operative treatment” and that “additional options will be obtained,” but that language doesn’t sound encouraging. If Utley does miss significant time, the Phillies could have a hard time getting someone who can provide even a quarter of his potential value.

It’s not that there are a lack of options on the market. In his column today ESPN’s Buster Olney listed two possibilities in his column today: Jeff Keppinger and Chone Figgins. MLB Trade Rumors’s Tim Dierkes adds four more to that list: David Eckstein, Michael Young, Felipe Lopez, and Luis Castillo. None of the options is perfect, whether it’s because the player is under contract with another team, the player has a bad contract, or the player is just not very good. What complicates matters is something Ken Rosenthal mentioned yesterday: the Phillies don’t have the money to pay for a decent replacement.

The Phillies were connected to Young this winter, but it was nothing more than a fleeting rumor. If Utley’s time on the shelf is a matter of months, then bringing in Young would make a bit more sense. But Young has three years and $48 million left on his contract, including $16 million this season. Maybe the Rangers would cover a portion of that, but not to the level the Phillies would require. The same goes for Figgins, who has three years and $26 million — perhaps four years and $35 million — left on his contract with the Mariners. These are easily the two best players on the above list, but are simply unattainable for the Phillies.

Adding to the list of issues is Keppinger, who will also miss the first six weeks of the season. The Astros are already set in the infield, making Keppinger expendable. But it seems that he’d make more sense in a deadline deal so that he can work back to full strength in games. That leaves just Eckstein, Lopez, and Castillo. None is likely to cost more than the major league minimum, but they’re all question marks in terms of value. The only value they’d bring is that they’ll likely be available for the league minimum.

Castillo might be the best of the bunch. In two of the last three seasons he has failed to crack 90 games, and even in the year he did he was worth just 1.6 WAR. His OBP does have value if he stays on the field, but the major concern is that if the Phillies signed him that they’d be looking for yet another second baseman before long. Thanks to an excellent defensive year Eckstein produced 2.0 WAR last year, but at age 36 it’s tough to expect anything resembling a repeat. His offense in the last two seasons has approximated Wilson Valdez‘s, so there probably any interest here. Lopez is probably the worst defender of the crew, but he also has the most offensive upside. He’s with the Rays on a minor league deal, so a trade is possible.

Given the lack of compatibility with the better players and a lack of production from the lesser ones, the Phillies will likely try to weather the situation with internal candidates. Valdez filled in while Utley was injured last year and was no worse than the guys listed above. Josh Barfield is in camp on a minor league deal, though at 28 his chances can’t be great. Brian Bocock sits on the team’s 40-man roster, but considering his poor minor league numbers it’s unlikely he can help. Even within the team’s own ranks there don’t appear to be any viable alternatives if Utley misses a few months.

Right now the Phillies need not be hasty. They haven’t received definitive word on Utley’s condition, and there’s always a chance he’ll miss only a few weeks. But, as Olney says, no news is not good news in this situation, and the way the Phillies broke this non-news makes it sound grave indeed. If Utley does miss time, Valdez will likely take over at the start of the season. Then, as the trade deadline approaches they can reassess the situation. Perhaps by then they can trade Joe Blanton to free up some money that they can use on a second baseman. Maybe Placido Polanco can slide over if a third baseman becomes available. The possibilities will certainly open up later in the season. For now they appear limited.

There is no replacement for Chase Utley. When healthy he is one of the league’s top three second basemen, if he’s not tops himself. Even in a relatively down year in which he played just 115 games he still produced 5.2 WAR. If he is going to miss time, the Phillies must bide their time and wait for better options to emerge. They’re tapped out in terms of payroll and can’t acquire a player, Figgins or Young, who might produce half of Utley’s value, and the lesser players aren’t necessarily better than the ones they have in camp. His absence will hurt the Phillies for sure, but the same can be said whenever a team’s best hitter gets hurt. It looks as though the team’s pitching became all that much more important.