With the trade deadline a little more than a month away, we’re going to see a lot of rumors and speculation over the next few weeks, with reporters tying players to certain teams based on what they’ve heard from industry sources. This post is neither rumor nor speculation. No one in the game has suggested to me that this might happen. I have no inside information. I’m just pointing out a trade that, from an outside perspective, looks so glaringly obvious that it has to happen for the world to make sense.
The Oakland A’s need a second baseman. Well, maybe you could argue that they need a shortstop, because Jed Lowrie‘s defense is pretty lousy at he’d be less harmful at 2B than SS, but Lowrie is still playing SS on a fairly regular basis, so technically, the A’s still need a second baseman. Preferably a second baseman who can hit. Eric Sogard is not a bad utility player to come off the bench, but he shouldn’t be playing regularly for a team in the midst of a pennant race. They should be able to do better.
So, let’s assume that the A’s are hunting for a second baseman, and not just a fill-in stop-gap type, but a guy who could make a real difference and push them over the hump as a legitimate World Series contender. But, because they’re the A’s and they’re constantly balancing current wins against maintaining enough assets for the future, they also need that impact player to come at something of a discount due to a diminished perception of his abilities. Basically, they need an impact player who people don’t think of as an impact player anymore.
They need Chase Utley.
From 2005 to 2009, Utley was an absolute monster, putting up five consecutive seasons with a +7 (or higher) WAR. He was perhaps the best all-around player in the game. However, over the last few years, injuries have begun to take their toll on Utley. After posting slugging percentages over .500 for five straight years, he’s now been in the mid .400s for the last four years. Right now, he’s the owner of a .335 on base percentage, a mark that would be a career low since becoming a regular back in 2005. And these are just rate stats, which don’t account for the fact that he misses a lot of playing time now. He just came off the DL on Friday after spending a month healing from an oblique injury. Chase Utley is not what he once was.
But that’s exactly why he’s perfect the A’s. Present day Chase Utley is living in the shadow of in-his-prime Chase Utley, so the perception is that he’s an older player breaking down and showing his age. Those are true statements, but they obfuscate the reality that a breaking down aging Chase Utley is still a pretty terrific player.
Among second baseman with at least 200 plate appearances, Utley’s 120 wRC+ ranks 10th, just behind Dustin Pedroia (124) and ahead of guys like Ben Zobrist (114). By home runs and RBIs, Utley might not look like anything special, but Utley still has power — his .196 ISO is his highest mark since ’09 — and still makes a lot of contact. Those are not skills that are particularly easy to find in a player who can play second base, and for what its worth, UZR still loves Utley’s defense at second base. In fact, the consistency of his defensive ratings are kind of amazing.
In a 10,000 inning sample over nine years, Utley has rated out as an elite defensive second baseman every single season, and his numbers haven’t declined even with the injuries. It has long been suggested that Utley’s range numbers are somewhat inflated because of where he positions himself, but a guy who is so good at positioning as to make extra plays that others can’t make is still adding value, and there’s no real reason to think that Utley would become bad at pre-pitch positioning if he was traded out of Philadelphia.
Even if you’re skeptical of defensive metrics, the case for Utley being a quality defensive second baseman is pretty strong, though he won’t be viewed as a big time defender based on his age, injuries, and the lack of flash with which he turns balls in play into outs. In other words, Utley specializes in exactly the kind of skills that are least likely to start a bidding war, and that’s exactly the kind of player that the A’s end up targeting.
Over the past calendar year, Utley has played in 133 games and hit 568 times, so he’s played nearly one full season during that stretch. He’s not Lou Gehrig or anything, but he’s healthy enough to play on a regular basis. During the last 365 days, Utley has posted +4.8 WAR, the fourth highest total of any second baseman in baseball. Even if you think defensive metrics are unreliable and you want to ignore them entirely, Utley would grade out as a +3.7 WAR player. Even if you want to use more traditional numbers, Utley is one home run and three steals away from being a 20-20 player during that stretch.
Chase Utley is still very good at baseball. Chase Utley is the prototypical Oakland A’s kind of player, and he would be a massive upgrade over Eric Sogard.
The Phillies might be reluctant to trade guys like Cliff Lee and give off the impression of a firesale, but Utley is a 34-year-old free agent to be who probably won’t be re-signing with the Phillies in the off-season. He’s the kind of guy that they can move without signaling that the franchise is entering total rebuild mode.
The A’s have some young talent that could help the Phillies long term. There are few teams that could make as dramatic of an upgrade as going from Eric Sogard to Chase Utley. Utley seems like the absolute perfect player for what Oakland values, and he happens to play the position where they most need improvement. This just seems like a trade that needs to happen. Chase Utley starting for a Billy Beane team just seems right.
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