Memorial Day weekend has always been a convenient little checkpoint for those with an interest in baseball -- general managers, players, fans, media types -- to take stock in their favorite teams, to gaze into the crystal ball and try to project whether their clubs of interest will be relevant in playoff races come Labor Day.
No, Phillies fans, that’s not a barbecue sauce smear on your crystal ball. It’s just really difficult to see this team being a long-term factor in the NL East race.
We’re still a few weeks from the point where Phillies management will have to decide whether to keep the team together or start selling off pieces to fuel a rebuilding/retooling effort. But with the shutout losses piling up -- Friday night’s was the fifth in a 16-game stretch -- and Cliff Lee on the disabled list, it’s not too early to ponder who might bring back some future help.
Lee, an arm that could help take a team to the World Series, would have been at the top of the list, and he still might be if he comes back healthy and dealing before the July 31 trade deadline. But Lee’s health, when weighed against the money he’s owed (the remainder of $25 million this season and at least $37.5 million beyond), could seriously impact his trade value.
Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz and Jonathan Papelbon all will have value on the trade market if rival teams are not wary of their contracts. All are signed beyond this season. Relievers Mike Adams and Antonio Bastardo might be fits somewhere and Kyle Kendrick would have value to a team that subscribes to the old Pat Gillick philosophy that sometimes it’s the marginal pickup (hello, Joe Blanton) that can be a difference-maker in a pennant race.
This all brings us to the complicated case of Chase Utley. Would he have value on the trade market? You betcha. He’s having a terrific season -- tied for the majors’ lead in doubles entering Saturday -- and a slew of contending teams could use upgrades at second base. Utley could provide several clubs with an on-field boost and his off-the-charts intangibles and championship know-how would be a huge benefit for a team looking to get over the top.
Here’s the rub, though:
While we feel confident that the Phillies would part with any of the above-mentioned players, there’s no evidence they would be willing to move their club icon second baseman. In fact, there’s only evidence that the team would not be willing to move him. That evidence includes the multi-year contract extension ($15 million this year and next with a series of options) that Utley signed last summer, a bond in which the team acknowledged that it wanted Utley to lead the team, and possibly a transitioning roster, for at least two more seasons and maybe more if his knees hold up. Utley was all for that. We know this because before talks of a contract extension escalated between the two sides, the Phillies told Utley they would try to deal him to a contender if he didn’t like what he saw in his crystal ball and felt it was time to move on. Utley said he wanted to stay.
Things are even more complicated this season. Not only has Utley been the Phillies' best player, but he also remains a do-gooder in the community and huge fan favorite. A team with sagging public appeal has to take this into a consideration -- and the Phillies always do. On top of this, Utley has looked completely healthy, running the bases like a madman at age 35. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that his career was very much in jeopardy just two years ago. If he’s going to produce like this, some might believe it best to have him do it in red pinstripes, regardless of the team’s place in the standings.
Would the Phillies be willing to trade all this away if they bow out of the race and concede to rebuilding? Too early to say. They still harbor hopes of being a contender. All we know at this point is the price for Utley would be high because the Phillies probably value his total package more than any other club.
The feeling here is the Phils absolutely should consider trading Utley. They should consider the difficult road that lies ahead of them this year and beyond and the need to infuse some young, difference-making talent into the organization. If they can get a couple of players that will help for the next decade, they should be willing to move Utley. Ideally, he can get with a team that can win a championship, the Phillies can get some talent to help them win their next championship, and Utley can come back someday to handshakes, applause and his rightful place on the Wall of Fame.
I’ve spent the last few days polling rival front-office men and scouts as to what the Phillies should do with Utley. They all agree: It’s difficult to see this Phillies team going anywhere. This is the time to try to make a score on Utley.
“It’s almost the perfect time,” a rival front-office man said. “He’s 35 and two years ago you weren’t sure whether his career was over or not. The league recognizes how good he’s playing. Guys like that put you in the World Series.”
Utley is so revered by Phillies management and ownership that he could make the call here. If he were to say he’d like to move on and take his shot at a championship elsewhere, the For Sale sign would probably go up. If he said he wanted to stay, the Phils would not take one call inquiring about his availability.
A few days ago, I asked Utley whether he’d waive his no-trade rights to go to a contender if the Phillies remained a sub.-500 club.
“Honestly, I haven’t even thought about it,” he said.
I pressed him.
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “That’s all I’ve got for you. Sorry.”
A glance around baseball shows a sizable number of contending clubs in need of a bat at second base.
Oakland and San Francisco would both be interesting places as Utley makes his offseason home in the Bay Area. The A’s are a pitching-based team that would benefit from Utley’s offense and veteran leadership. A deep run into October wouldn’t hurt the A’s stadium quest. Utley would be a good fit on that scrappy club. And the Giants? You know front-office man Pat Burrell, one of Utley’s best friends, would push for that.
Baltimore needs pitching and doesn’t have much budget room, but Utley would help that club in a big way. And if the O’s are serious about playing Jonathan Schoop at third and Manny Machado at shortstop next season, Utley’s good at second for beyond this season.
Toronto? The Jays also need pitching more than offense, and it’s difficult to see Utley approving a deal to play on plastic grass after all the work he’s done on his knees.
St. Louis. Hmm. Interesting. The Cards miss Carlos Beltran’s bat. Kolten Wong has teetered in and out of the second base job. Utley would like St. Louis’ all-baseball feel. Seems like a good fit. Then again, the Cards could move Matt Carpenter back to second and look for a third baseman. Either way, a team to keep an eye on.
Others could emerge, particularly the Yankees and Dodgers, two teams that will spend what it takes to win and would have interest in Utley if their current second-base situations became problematic.
Clearly, the Phillies would have to get a strong return because no one is looking to dump Chase Utley’s salary or give him away. But if the Phillies decided to trade him and Utley is up for it, there will be places to go.
I believe the Phillies have to be open to this.