Trade Utley? If sellers, Phillies must consider it

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Trade Utley? If sellers, Phillies must consider it

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Do you?

Best of MLB: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

Best of MLB: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

NEW YORK -- Yoenis Cespedes homered with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the New York Mets a 2-1 victory over the Miami Marlins in the first game of a pivotal series between National League playoff contenders Monday night.

Jose Reyes dashed home to score the tying run in the eighth on a dangerous collision at the plate, and the Mets pulled even with Miami for second place in the NL East. With its seventh victory in nine games, New York remained 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the league's second wild card.

It was an exhilarating win for the Mets, who appeared to be at a major disadvantage on the mound in the opener of a four-game set. New York was shut out for six innings by Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, but Mets starter Rafael Montero also put up zeros in his first major league start since April 2015 (see full recap).

Martinez's 13 K's, throwing error give Cards win
MILWAUKEE -- Stephen Piscotty scored on a throwing error in the ninth inning after Carlos Martinez struck out a career-high 13, leading the St. Louis Cardinals over the Milwaukee Brewers 6-5 on Monday night.

With two on and nobody out in the ninth, Yadier Molina dropped down a bunt. Reliever Tyler Thornburg (5-5) threw to third base for a force out, but Jonathan Villar's throw to first was wild, allowing Piscotty to score.

After Martinez held Milwaukee to one run over six innings, the Brewers scored four runs in the seventh to take a 5-3 lead. St. Louis tied it in the eighth on a two-run homer by Randal Grichuk off Corey Knebel.

Seung Hwan Oh pitched a perfect ninth for his 14th save. Miguel Socolovich (1-0) pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings to pick up his first win.

Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong each hit solo home runs for the Cardinals (see full recap).

Royals keep rolling, take down Yankees
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dillon Gee kept the Royals' momentum going with six sharp innings, Alcides Escobar hit a three-run homer and Kansas City beat the New York Yankees 8-5 on Monday night to open their three-game set.

Gee (6-7) allowed only four hits and a run in the latest impressive start by the Royals' staff, helping the reigning World Series champions win for the 18th time in 22 games.

Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales and Alex Gordon drove in runs off Michael Pineda (6-11) during a five-hit salvo in the first inning. Pineda then retired 15 straight before getting into a two-on, no-outs jam in the seventh that led to Escobar's homer off reliever Blake Parker.

Starlin Castro drove in two runs for the Yankees, the second in a four-run eighth inning that forced Kansas City manager Ned Yost to summon fill-in closer Kelvin Herrera (see full recap).

Jake Thompson tweaks delivery, offers ray of light on a dark night for Phillies

Jake Thompson tweaks delivery, offers ray of light on a dark night for Phillies

BOX SCORE

On the surface, this was not a very positive night at the ballpark for the Phillies. They had just four hits and lost, 4-0, to the Washington Nationals in front of the smallest crowd of the season – 16,056, announced – at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay).
 
But lest we forget, this is a rebuilding season and in a rebuilding season the final score isn’t always paramount. So on an otherwise dark Monday night there was a ray of light for the Phillies.
 
Jake Thompson had the kind of start those who traded for him a year ago and those who watched him pitch this season in Triple A said he was capable of having.
 
“It was great to see,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “That’s just what he needed. He needed a real positive outing. I think this will do wonders for him down the road.”
 
Thompson held the NL East-leading Nationals to two runs over seven innings, his longest of five outings in the majors.
 
“He looked like the pitcher that was advertised,” Mackanin said.
 
Thompson’s first four outings in the majors were poor. He was tagged for 22 hits and 21 earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. He walked 13 and struck out 13. Those results were starkly different than his last 11 starts in Triple A. He went 8-0 in those 11 starts and recorded a 1.21 ERA while allowing just 10 earned runs in 74 1/3 innings. He gave up just 52 hits and 18 walks over that span while striking out 42.
 
After watching Thompson for four starts, pitching coach Bob McClure decided to suggest some delivery changes to the 22-year-old right-hander.
 
Players are often receptive to making adjustments when they are struggling. Thompson incorporated the changes McClure suggested and found success Monday night.
 
“We just tried to simplify his delivery so he could make better quality pitches,” McClure said.
 
In his old delivery, Thompson started off facing home plate. He pulled his arms over his head, turned and lifted his front leg before delivering the ball. McClure eliminated many of the moving parts. No more lifting the arms above the head. No more body turn. Thompson started his delivery with his body already turned, like a modified stretch. He simply lifted his leg, let his body go down the slope and fired. The new delivery slowed everything down for him. He looked poised, especially after the first couple of innings, and started attacking hitters with first-pitch strikes like a confident pitcher does.
 
Considering he only worked on the new delivery in two short bullpen sessions Saturday and Sunday in New York, Thompson was a pretty quick study.
 
“It was huge,” he said of the new delivery. “Just on the physical side of things, I’m in a better position to make pitches. I took away some moving parts to make it easier on myself.”
 
Thompson allowed seven hits, walked one and struck out three. All three strikeouts came in his final inning of work. He struck out leadoff man Trea Turner with two men on base with a slider to end the inning.
 
That’s another adjustment McClure made. He had Thompson stop throwing his curveball and focus on his fastball, slider, cutter and changeup.
 
Both of the runs that Thompson allowed came in the first inning on a solo homer by Jayson Werth and an RBI single by Anthony Rendon. After that, Thompson recorded six straight shutout innings. His teammates didn’t support him offensively. Washington right-hander Tanner Roark pitched seven shutout innings. He is 3-0 and has allowed just two runs in 28 innings in four starts against the Phils this season.
 
Thompson needed a start like this for a couple of reasons. First, if he had been pounded again, Phillies officials might have had to consider taking him out of the rotation just so his confidence didn’t get ruined.
 
And second, with Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin out with injuries, the team needed to know something was going right for one of the young pitchers being groomed for the future. Vince Velasquez, another young arm, had three poor outings before pitching well in New York on Sunday.
 
“This will help his confidence a lot,” McClure said.
 
McClure then offered a little glimpse into Thompson’s competitive character.
 
“He seemed pissed that he wasn't pitching well,” McClure said. “But he wasn't deflated. We felt like we should keep starting him because he didn't seem beaten. He seems like a tough kid mentally. We felt like once he started making better quality pitches, he'd get better results.”
 
It happened Monday, a ray of light on an otherwise dark night.

Instant Replay: Nationals 4, Phillies 0

Instant Replay: Nationals 4, Phillies 0

BOX SCORE

The Phillies were beaten, 4-0, by the Washington Nationals on Monday night, but wins and losses don’t matter as much as development in a rebuilding season, so there was a bright spot: Rookie right-hander Jake Thompson finally broke through with a good start in holding the Nats to two runs over seven innings.
 
The Phillies’ offense was not good. It produced just four hits on the night.
 
Washington got all the offense it needed when Jayson Werth, the second batter of the game, homered off Thompson in the first inning.

The Nats lead the NL East at 76-55. The Phils are 60-71.
 
The crowd of 16,056 was the smallest of the season at Citizens Bank Park.
 
Starting pitching report
Thompson had struggled in four starts — 9.78 ERA — since arriving from Triple A and there were questions whether he’d even make this start. But he put together a nice outing. After giving up two runs in the first inning, he pitched six straight scoreless innings, finishing his outing with three strikeouts, the last of which came on his 111th pitch when he froze Trea Turner with a breaking ball with two men on base. Thompson allowed seven hits — four in the first three innings — and walked one.
 
Washington right-hander Tanner Roark pitched seven shutout innings to improve to 14-7. He held the Phils to four hits and a walk and struck out five.

Roark is 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA (two earned runs in 28 innings) in four starts against the Phillies this season. The Nats are 15-4 in his last 19 starts.

Bullpen report
Frank Herrmann gave up two runs in the ninth.
 
At the plate
Odubel Herrera had two of the Phillies’ four hits.
 
Werth’s homer in the top of the first was his 19th. Anthony Rendon drove in a run with a two-out single in that inning. Clint Robinson and Turner had RBI singles in the ninth to push the Nats’ lead to 4-0.
 
ICYMI
Herrera is staying in center field for the remainder of the season, Pete Mackanin said (see story).
 
Up next
The series continues on Tuesday night. Jerad Eickhoff (9-12, 3.87) pitches against Washington right-hander Max Scherzer (14-7, 2.92).