Utley & Roberts, Second Basemen on the Comeback Trail

For most of the second half of the new century’s first decade, there was little question about the two players at the top of the heap when it came to production from second base. Chase Utley in Philadelphia and Brian Roberts in Baltimore, just 100 miles apart via I-95, were the gold standard for power, speed, and defense. Between 2005, Utley’s first full season, and 2009, Roberts’ last, they were not only the two most valuable second basemen in the game, they were two of the top 20 most valuable players, period.

As the duo have moved into their 30s, neither has come close to sustaining that value due to a variety of physical woes. Utley had a decent 2010 when he wasn’t sidelined by thumb surgery, but played in only 103 games last year and zero so far this year as he’s battled injuries to both knees; Roberts missed most of 2010 with an abdominal strain and then more than a year after a May 2011 concussion before finally returning to the Orioles earlier this week. Since the end of 2009, the two have missed 456 of a possible 776 team games, and over the last three years, they’ve lost most of their relevance as second basemen like Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano, Ben Zobrist, & Brandon Phillips have become the cream of the keystone crop.

Now 34 (Roberts) & 33 (Utley), the two former superstars are expected to make their 2012 debuts within a few weeks of each other. Should you care?

Let’s start with Roberts, since he’s already made it back to the bigs; he collected three hits in his first game back, then went 0-5. For the remainder of the season, ZIPS projects him to go .266/.331/.405 (.736) for a .327 wOBA, along with three homers and seven steals. That sounds low for a player of his skills, though it’s worth noting that even when he was playing the first six weeks of the 2011 season before hitting his head in Boston, he wasn’t doing much, compiling a .274 wOBA in 138 plate appearances. My gut says that if he’s healthy he outplays the projection somewhat, potentially adding slightly more OBP and power but not coming close to his previous stolen base totals as the Orioles would probably prefer he take it easy on his fragile body.

Utley is a little further behind, shooting to get back to the Phillies at the end of June or early July, and he doesn’t even have have a rest of season projection from ZIPS since he hasn’t played in the bigs yet; so far, he’s only collected a few minor league plate appearances as a DH. We’ll need to see how his knee responds when he finally gets back in the field, and it’s possible he could see enough time as a first baseman when he returns before Ryan Howard is healthy that he gains eligibility there as well.

Now all that being said, working in their favor is that second base, for fantasy purposes, is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Entering play on Thursday, all MLB second basemen were combining to hit .254/.318/.381, with the resulting .699 OPS worse than any other position than shortstop. This is a world where Daniel Murphy is owned in 85% of ESPN leagues, despite a .690 OPS, four steals and not a single homer. Rickie Weeks, formerly a solid contributor, has been a total disaster, yet is still owned by more than half of teams. If you’re not rolling out one of top ten or so second basemen, you’re likely getting little if anything from the position. And that means that even if you don’t expect Roberts or Utley to return to their previous heights – which I think we can all agree is massively unlikely – it may not take that level of talent for them to be worthwhile options.

From a fantasy perspective, it’s interesting to see which horse players are betting on. Utley, at the time of this writing, is owned by 84.1% of ESPN teams, while Roberts is at just 15.4% – most of which has come in the last week as he’s returned. In Yahoo, that spread is 63% to 14%. That seems pretty clearly due to the fact that Utley at least played most of the last two seasons while Roberts largely did not, but it also makes Roberts the better target if you’re interested in checking out either, simply because he’s far more likely to be available for a low price and has already completed his rehab and returned.

Really, it’s all about opportunity cost here. At their age, with their injury histories, it’s foolish to count on either to come and immediately be productive and pay in players or free agent budget like they’re All-Stars. On the other hand, second base can be so hard to fill that one can hardly be blamed for trying to wish on some past glory to come and provide something of a boost, so in the right situation, it’s hard to think that they’re not worth a gamble. (For reference, in my main league, where I’ve had Ben Zobrist & Omar Infante at 2B and three daily reserve spots, I picked up Roberts when I put Brandon Morrow on the DL yesterday.) Just don’t go wild trying to get either, and if you get one, a healthy dose of skepticism – and a viable alternative – is highly recommended.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not.

Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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I think I’d rather take a chance on a kid on a streak like Everth Cabrera than trust these guys to be healthy enough to play well.