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Chase Utley: Is This The End?

Chase Utley wasn’t a full-time player until he was 26-years-old. For the next five seasons, Utley turned in one of the most dominant stretches in fantasy baseball. At one of the weakest fantasy positions, Utley was an absolute monster. Over that five year stretch, Utley hit .301/.388/.535, and averaged 33 home runs per season. His power dropped in 2010, but Utley was also dealing with a thumb injury, which was the likely culprit. Just before the 2011 season, things got much worse. Utley started experiencing problems with his knees, causing him to miss nearly the first two months of the season. Utley played through the pain, but his numbers clearly suffered. Things got even worse this past season, as it was revealed Utley’s knee issues were worse than initially thought. He didn’t play a game until late-June, and his numbers barely improved. Utley will turn 34 this December, and already has a chronic knee condition. His days as a fantasy starter may be over.

Utley’s performance last season actually wasn’t that bad considering all the factors. His overall slash line was down to just .256/.364/.429, but he did manage to club 11 home runs in just 362 plate appearances. His .342 wOBA actually ranked fifth among all second basemen. Even with the decreased numbers, Utley managed to provide some value to patient fantasy owners. With a full season worth of playing time, it’s not hard to see Utley re-establishing himself as, at the very least, a top 10 fantasy second baseman.

The problem, of course, is that Utley now carries significant risks. Aside from dealing with normal age-related decline, Utley has an injury that isn’t going to get better. His knee issues have already been career-altering, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever return to his previous levels of performance. Utley’s plan for the offseason is to work on more strengthening exercises so that his knee will hold up better during the year. Late in the year, Utley admitted that he would keep an open mind when asked about whether he would consider Regenokine treatment, a controversial procedure that Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez have turned to in recent years. The treatment is controversial because it hasn’t been approved in the United States.

No matter what path Utley chooses, he’s still going to be a significant risk for injury. He can strengthen his knees more, but there’s no telling whether they can hold up over a full season of games. And if he opts for treatment, there’s no guarantee it will solve all of his problems. On top of that, Utley is dealing with normal age-related decline. His numbers have already taken a hit, and it’s not clear whether that’s normal decline, or due to the injuries. Even if he remains healthy for an entire season, his numbers may not improve significantly. At age 34, how many more productive years does he have left? Even if you assume he’s fully healthy, it’s not that many.

Still, Utley’s production — while down — was useful last year. The biggest question revolves around the healthy of his knees. He worked extremely hard to get back last season, and held up fairly well down the stretch, so it’s tough to question his motivation. If Utley comes into the season healthy, and ready to play. He can still be counted on as a starter. But we don’t know how long he can remain on the field before his knees start giving him problems, so you would have to draft a decent backup at second. And even if Utley performs well, he’s probably a prime trade-candidate after he re-establishes his value. There’s still potential for Utley to be a top 10 performer at his position, but the risks likely outweigh the reward now.