The Chase Utley-Third Base Experiment

This has been a very disappointing season for the Philadelphia Phillies. After posting a poor 37-50 record prior to the all-star break, the team has turned things around to the tune of a 39-24 mark. However, the turnaround has mostly come too late, as they still have to make up four games with 12 left to play just to tie the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League’s second wild card berth. Despite barely even hovering around the .500 mark until recently, the non-contention has enabled the team to evaluate potential pieces of next year’s team at the major league level.

The Phillies installed Domonic Brown in right field on an everyday basis and shifted John Mayberry to center field after the trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. They took a cautious approach with Vance Worley, shut him down when his elbow proved too bothersome, and replaced him with youngster Tyler Cloyd. The improbably hot-hitting Kevin Frandsen has handled the majority of playing time down at the hot corner in Placido Polanco‘s absense. The Phillies have also called upon a slew of relief pitchers, either homegrown or previously acquired via trade, in the hopes that they don’t have to spend any more money in that particular area.

But the Phillies also have another player they plan on evaluating for next season, and he is already a star at the major league level. Chase Utley recently approached the front office with the idea of playing third base next season. It wasn’t a demand, or even a detailed conversation fleshed out logistically with the front office and managerial staff, but Utley suggested that, if it helps the team given the poor free agent class at the position, he could give it a shot. Ruben Amaro, Jr., added that Utley could even see time at the position this season if the Phillies are officially eliminated from the playoff race over the next two weeks.

The Phillies could definitely use some help at third base, but shifting Utley isn’t a cut-and-dried solution, and this positional swap isn’t necessarily going to solve the team’s issues.

For starters, the rationale behind moving him to third base is that the Phillies can’t truly upgrade the position on the free agent market. The third base free agent class is pretty anemic, with names like Geoff Blum, Miguel Cairo, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Scott Rolen. The latter seems mostly done, and the other three aren’t exactly upgrades over the Phillies current situation. Utley at third base represents a better option than anyone available via free agency. The Phillies could look to make a splash via trade, or if the options of David Wright and Kevin Youkilis aren’t exercised, but the team might not be inclined to dole out another lucrative deal to an aging player or ship away more of the already-depleted farm system.

Moving Utley to third base would solve that issue, but it would create another one in that the Phillies don’t exactly have someone waiting to replace him at second base. Sure, they have Freddy Galvis, who was playing defense at an elite level this season before breaking his back and getting suspended for having a trace amount of performance-enhancing drugs in his urine. Galvis hasn’t fully recovered from his injury yet, and can’t hit even if his glove is terrific. The Phillies have flirted with the idea of playing him at third base next season, along with Frandsen, but it ultimately makes no difference.

Whether Utley plays second base and that combo plays third base, or vice-versa, that light-hitting combo is still in the lineup. Using Galvis and Frandsen at the keystone would also have the added detriment of playing Utley out of his natural position, in a spot he may not handle well given his recent throwing problems.

The only way moving Utley to third base actually improves the Phillies — aside from determining if the assumption that his defensive skills would translate rings true — is if the team upgraded at second base. Unfortunately, the free agent crop of second basemen and shortstops isn’t that much better than the third base crop. Sure, Jeff Keppinger could fit nicely. Stephen Drew on a one-year deal, if it came to that, could be interesting as well. It seems unlikely that Marco Scutaro would have to settle for an inexpensive, short-term deal, and all indications are that the Phillies are trying to avoid spending a lot on older players. Aside from those names, the classes are loaded with the Ryan Theriot‘s, Yuniesky Betancourt‘s, and Cesar Izturis‘s of the world.

At that point, sticking with the internal options makes sense, but so does using them at third instead of making Utley learn a new position. Frandsen has gained experience at the position this season, and Galvis transitioned from shortstop to second base seamlessly. It’s hard to imagine that, if healthy, he couldn’t handle third base duty.

Besides, there is no guarantee that Utley could even play the position. Yes, Placido Polanco shifted back and forth between these two positions throughout his career, so there is precedent. However, Polanco always had a strong, reliable arm. Utley derives plenty of defensive value from his range and ability to convert fielded balls into outs. If there is a weakness in his usually pristine game, it’s his arm, as he struggles from time to time to make a strong throw to first base. How that throwing issue would translate to third base remains to be seen, but the skepticism is certainly merited. He hasn’t played the position since the Travis Lee and Omar Daal era of Phillies baseball, when he was in the minors, and it sure seems a lot to ask someone with chronic knee pain, who has played half-seasons the last two years, to learn a new position over the offseason.

If Utley could transition to third base seamlessly and, in doing so, stay healthy for a longer period of time, the idea starts to make some sense. Then again, there is no way of knowing if playing third base would be easier on his knees than second base, even though it seems like it should. There is also very little to suggest he could play the position well, let alone that it would keep him healthier, especially since his chondromalacia isn’t going to disappear. Further, the lack of viable external solutions to replace him at second base renders much of this discussion moot.

This is the type of selfless act Utley has become known for throughout his career, and it’s interesting out of the box thinking from a team that hasn’t used its resources that well in recent years. Unless Utley can handle the position well and the team can truly upgrade at second base, it’s an idea not worth pursuing.




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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


31 Responses to “The Chase Utley-Third Base Experiment”

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  1. Jack says:

    There’s some joke about getting to third base here.

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  2. DD says:

    Suprised you didn’t mention that there is a possibility that 3B is less demanding on his knee condition than 2B, where he has to deal with double play breakup slides and the turn as well (though his footwork in this regard is fantastic).

    I would have no problem giving Scutaro a 2 year deal around $11-12 mil, and have him play 3B. He would be league avg with the bat (better than Polanco) and above avg defensively, plus he is more likely to play 140+ games. The team can use Frandsen and Galvis as their utility men off the bench (instead of Mike Martinez please!), and decide on the bigger issue this offseason – who will play CF going forward. My choice there is to use Brown in LF, Mayberry/Schierholtz platoon in RF, and sign BJ Upton to play CF (he will likely not be many teams’ first option and shouldn’t be overpriced). Nix then is the 5th OFer, and they decline Wiggy’s option.

    The other concern is Manuel saying he wants an “elite reliever” added, which is by all angles a terrible idea. We’ll see how it all plays out.

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  3. Crumpled Stiltskin says:

    Elvis Andrus and mike Olt will both likely be available at some point, especially if the rangers were to resign Hamilton, as the rangers don’t really have a place for them, Olt being blocked and Andrus destined to be replaced. If I were the phillies, I’d try to do complete that cliff lee deal that was rumored this year, if they can get those guys, even if they have to pick up a lot of the contract.

    Beltre, Olt, Andrus, Kinsler, Profar, Moreland, there isn’t space for all of them and they won’t be able to keep Profar and Olt in AAA forever.

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    • Bob says:

      Would the Phil’s really want to pay a premium for Andrus when they already have a good shortstop they would have to move off his natural position to accommodate Andrus? Rollins’ bat certainly isn’t going to play as well at 3rd.

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      • DD says:

        Why wouldn’t it play well at third? Not disagreeing you that he should stay at SS, but he hits better than many 3B in the league.

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      • Governator says:

        If you’re going to pay for Andrus you might as well pay the same price in prospects and get a true third baseman in Headley or Olt. Andrus’ value is completely tied in being a shortstop and playing good defense there, just like Rollins.

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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        He has the same wRC+ as Chris Johnson and Hanley Ramirez this year. That’s tied for 11th out of all qualified 3B, and Longoria, Sandoval and Middlebrooks aren’t qualified.

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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        (He’s the 6th best hitting SS)

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      • Richie says:

        What Bob says. Rollins is well into the stage in his career where each year you project less from the bat, not more or the same.

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  4. Bob says:

    The one thing I think we would need to know before evaluating this would be whether or not it would affect his knee positively or negatively. If for whatever reason third would involve less wear and tear on the knee, allowing Utley to play 140 games in relative health, then the move is worth it.

    Unfortunately, I think that’s what the crux of this decision rests on, and the answer is unknowable by third parties.

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  5. Ben says:

    Honestly, taking a serious look into Jeff Keppinger may not be the worst idea for the Phillies. If Utley can play third base, like DD said, it would relieve some pressure from his knees and possibly allow him to play more full seasons. For the third time in his career, Keppinger is posting a 2+ WAR and he’s only making about $1.5 million. My guess is a he’s looking for a contract longer than one season, and for the Phillies, with Galvis and Frandsen as the other options for the Phillies, Keppinger is worth a look. Keppinger has a 120+ wRC+, which would be a great upgrade for the Phillies. I know you can’t count on Keppinger to have that kind of production every season, but given the other options he might be worth it.

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    • DD says:

      He is cheaper than Scutaro or another option, and younger, but like Pierre he looks really good when his avg is up and below avg when it is down. He doesn’t draw walks or hit for much power, so most of the value is in his versatility and BA. I’d rather pay Scutaro twice as much as he has a better all around game and is better defensively.

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      • Governator says:

        Aaron Hill might be the best option out there for the Phillies if they can pry him away from the Diamondbacks for a midlevel prospect. Signed through 2013 at ~$6m and has played some third base in his career.

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      • Jason B says:

        That’s not a bad idea, but do the D’backs have someone waiting in the wings to push Hill off of 2B or out? If their internal replacement options aren’t there, then I don’t see them rushing to trade Hill given that his contract is both reasonable and short.

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  6. Governator says:

    The Phillies’ farm system is substantially less depleted than it was a year ago at this time…they have probably moved from the bottom third into the middle third just by adding Joseph and Martin at the deadline and not trading any of their own guys — some of whom progressed mightily this year. Specifically, Adam Morgan, Austin Wright, Cody Asche, Maikel Franco, and Roman Quinn took major steps forward. And Tyson Gillies rebounded nicely from two miserable seasons of injuries.

    Asche looks like the closest thing the Phillies have had to a third base prospect since Rolen, and he could be ready by the middle of 2013 or spring 2014. If the Phillies can patch up the position enough for one year between Galvis and Frandsen they can leave Utley where he’s best suited and spend their money in the outfield.

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    • Richie says:

      Agreed, agreed, agreed. Once you stop pretending the Phillies can just reach into the Monopoly money bank when nobody’s looking, this is absolutely the sound move. The only sound move.

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  7. walt526 says:

    Hell will freeze over before Scott Rolen plays for the Phillies again. And it has nothing to do with whether or not he has anything left in the tank.

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    • Brian says:

      Eh- Rolen’s problems were with the long since departed Larry Bowa. I think if the Phillies called, Scott would at least pick up the phone.

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    • Richie says:

      I’m inclined to vote with Brian. If he really wants to try another year, he’ll go to whatever Bowa-less place promises him first crack at the starting job. With the Phillies’ reasonable aspirations of contenderhood providing another plus.

      But does he so want??

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  8. Daniel says:

    Phillies should seriously make a play at Chase Headley. The Padres still want to get rid of him and I think they’d do it for pitching prospects. Padres have no high upside pitchers in their otherwise strong farm system.

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    • Cookierojas16 says:

      If they wanted to get rid of him, why didn’t they do so at the deadline? I think the Padres see themselves as legit contenders next year, hence the signings of Street and Quentin, which would be indefensible if they are in rebuilding mode.

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      • Daniel says:

        Well they resigned Street and Quentin, but not Headley. So that by itself tells me they’re still interested in trading him if the right deal comes along. The right deal didn’t come along at the trade deadline. Headley has turned himself into a legit MVP type player. Padres have Gyorko and Phillies can make a great deal for Headley.

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  9. Robbie G. says:

    It seems to me that the Phillies need to get a huge amount of production from one individual, a new player (presumably a free agent acquisition, as the farm system is pretty barren at this point), in order to make it back to the playoffs. Since there is no such star 2B or 3B available in free agency, it makes sense for the team to sign a star outfielder, and to stick with some combination of Chase Utley, Freddy Galvis, and Kevin Frandsen at 2B and 3B.

    I have convinced myself into thinking that the Phillies are going to just go for it this offseason by making a strong run at Josh Hamilton, who is really the only such outfielder out there who is a very good bet to put up a massive amount of production. B.J. Upton is a tease, whereas Michael Bourn strikes me as the next Carl Crawford (not a compliment), since so much of his value derives from his speed, and human beings inevitably get slower as they enter their thirties.

    Add Hamilton to the middle of the order, play John Mayberry and Domonic Brown every day at the other two OF positions, maintain the status quo in the infield, keep your big three starting pitchers around (at least for one more season), and go for it one more time, before your veterans fall off a cliff, which likely starts happening by 2014. And obviously you want to hope that Ryan Howard can simply be solid but overpaid, rather than terrible.

    If the team can’t get Hamilton, or decides that the price tag is just too outrageous, the team should look at Torii Hunter (two years, $24 mil?), Melky Cabrera (one year, $8 mil?), Alfonso Soriano (Cubs would absorb a huge chunk of his remaining monies owed), maybe even the resurrected Ichiro Suzuki (two years, $18 mil?). Although, in this scenario, the team will really need other things to happen if they want to make a legitimate run at one more World Series title (e.g., a big rebound from Ryan Howard, a far healthier season from Chase Utley, a “breakout” year by Domonic Brown, a career year from John Mayberry).

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    • Bob says:

      All the Phillies really need is their pitching aces to perform like aces. If Halladay, Lee, and Hamels pitch like they are capable of, they’re in the playoffs this year and next year.

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    • Matt C says:

      Why are you so sure the Phils need “huge” production from a new player, when their current roster has given them an outside shot at the playoffs right now? This after just half-seasons from Howard and Utley, an extended DL trip for Halladay, bone chips for Worley, and zombie Placido Polanco. With a patch at 3B and healthy seasons from their key guys, they should contend next year without doing anything drastic/desperate like signing Hamilton.

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      • Robbie G. says:

        Well, I guess I am taking what I believe to be a realistic view, which means that old players are inevitably going to spend chunks of time on the D.L., and that it is unlikely to expert a return to form by a 33-year-old Ryan Howard. I think we should also expect some regression from both Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz, right?

        Also, I tend to look not at what teams should do, but what I think they will do, based on past behavior. And what we know about Ruben Amaro, Jr. is that he is extremely, extremely aggressive. Maybe ownership has told him that it’s time to trim payroll but I doubt it. You have a mixture of overly aggressive management, ownership that is tolerating (perhaps encouraging) this overly aggressive management, a rabid fan base, and, I believe, an upcoming huge cable contract. So I think we’ll see the Phillies re-assert themselves this offseason and remind the world that they are one of the big boys by going for it. Although maybe the organization will go a different route, who knows.

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  10. algionfriddo says:

    Galvis is a backup player with a good glove. He’s not a step up if used as a starter at 2b. Uttley needs to play 3b now to see if he is even capable arm-wise. That doesn’t seem to be a sure thing. If he can, Kelly Johnson could be had at a reasonable rate. He’ll be recovered from his near season long injury by then and could surprise in that park. Galvis could see time at 2b vLHP. Johnson is better than his stats this year if healthy.

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