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?

MLB Notes: Aroldis Chapman rejoins Yankees on 5-year, $86 million deal

MLB Notes: Aroldis Chapman rejoins Yankees on 5-year, $86 million deal

OXON HILL, Md. -- Aroldis Chapman found a spot in a most familiar bullpen -- a very rich spot, too.

The hard-throwing closer reached agreement to return to the New York Yankees on Wednesday night with the highest-priced contract ever for a relief pitcher, an $86 million deal for five years.

A person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press that the contract was pending a physical. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal was not yet complete.

Once it's done, the 28-year-old lefty whose fastballs routinely top 100 mph would shatter the previous richest contract for a reliever -- that was the $62 million, four-year deal Mark Melancon signed with San Francisco just a couple days ago during the winter meetings.

Chapman was acquired by New York from the Cincinnati Reds last offseason, then missed the first 29 games of the season due to a domestic violence suspension from Major League Baseball. The Cuban was traded to the Chicago Cubs in late July and helped them win the World Series, becoming a free agent when it was over.

Chapman went 4-1 with 36 saves and a 1.55 ERA in a combined 59 games for the Yankees and Cubs. He struggled some in the postseason as the Cubs beat Cleveland for their first championship since 1908.

With the Yankees this season, Chapman teamed with Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances in one of the most dominant bullpens in baseball history. Miller was later traded to Cleveland, but Betances is still with New York.

Earlier this week, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said the team was interested in both Chapman and fellow free agent closer Kenley Jansen. The Yankees had already made one deal at these meetings, signing slugger Matt Holliday, before paying a lot more to bring Chapman back to the Bronx.

Fox Sports first reported the agreement.

Rangers: Gomez reaches deal to stay with team
OXON HILL, Md. -- Carlos Gomez is staying with the Texas Rangers.

The outfielder agreed to an $11.5 million, one-year contract, a deal subject to a successful physical.

"Many of the objectives of the Rangers for Carlos go beyond one year," his agent, Scott Boras, said Wednesday. "Certainly Carlos really enjoyed the team and the environment and feels he's got a great chance to win. So I think both parties' objectives were met by that deal."

Gomez, who turned 31 last weekend, figures to play center as general manager Jon Daniels structured an outfield that includes Shin-Soo Choo in right and Nomar Mazara in left. Ian Desmond left Wednesday for a $70 million, five-year deal with Colorado.

Gomez batted just .210 with five homers in 85 games this year for Houston and was released by the Astros in August. He signed with Texas and hit .284 with eight homers and 24 RBIs in 33 games. An All-Star in 2013 and '14 with Milwaukee, Gomez has a .257 average and 116 home runs in 10 big league seasons.

"J.D. was very clear from the onset about them wanting Carlos back, and we've had communication since the season's end to pursue that," Boras said. "So it was something in our minds and in their minds. It was just a constant dialogue."

AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.

Red Sox: Sale not worried about being ace
BOSTON -- New Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale says he isn't worried that he might not be the ace of the pitching staff after being traded from the White Sox to Boston.

The 27-year-old lefty told reporters on Wednesday, "We play for a trophy, not a tag."

Sale was traded to the Red Sox on Tuesday at the baseball winter meetings. He was the top starting pitcher on the market, and the Red Sox gave up touted prospect Yoan Moncada as part of a package to land him.

Sale has been an All-Star for five straight seasons and finished in the top six of the Cy Young Award voting each time. He joins a staff that already includes 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and '12 winner David Price (see full story).

Trade front quiet, but Phillies could lose a player or 2 in Rule 5 draft

Trade front quiet, but Phillies could lose a player or 2 in Rule 5 draft

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Phillies have a history of adding players in the Rule 5 draft. The annual event, designed to prevent teams from stockpiling minor-league talent without giving it a shot in the majors, has netted the Phillies players such as Dave Hollins, Shane Victorino and Odubel Herrera over the years.

The year’s Rule 5 draft will be held Thursday morning at the conclusion of the winter meetings, but it’s highly unlikely that the Phillies will be active. After adding 11 prospects to their 40-man roster two weeks ago, the Phillies are simply out of room. Selecting a player in the Rule 5 draft would first require the Phils to cut a player loose and that did not seem to be the plan as the sun set Wednesday.

While an addition is unlikely, there’s a strong possibility that the Phils will lose a player or two in the draft. Outfielder Andrew Pullin, a 2012 draft pick, is the likeliest to go. He hit .322 with a .885 OPS between Single A and Double A in 2016 and a number of teams are buzzing about him. A late-season elbow injury prevented Pullin from playing in the Arizona Fall League and factored into the Phillies’ decision to leave him unprotected.

If a team rolls the dice on Pullin, it must keep him in the majors all season or offer him back to the Phillies.

Other players who could go include first baseman/outfielder Brock Stassi, outfielder Carlos Tocci and pitchers Miguel Nunez and Hoby Milner.

All quiet for now
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak spent Wednesday meeting with agents and representatives from other clubs.

“Nothing is hot at the moment,” he said late in the day.

Klentak has brought back starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, added relievers Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek and traded for outfielder Howie Kendrick this offseason. The biggest remaining issue/question on his plate is whether to add a veteran hitter in a corner outfield spot or keep the pathway open for young players such as Roman Quinn and eventually Dylan Cozens and Nick Williams. 

“Successfully balancing the present and the future is the single greatest challenge that a baseball operations department faces,” Klentak said. “We’ve talked about it all offseason. The decisions that we are making right now about giving playing time to a young player that has cut his teeth in Triple A and needs that opportunity to take the next step as opposed to a shorter-term solution from the outside — that’s one of the main challenges that we’ve run into this offseason.”

While it’s uncertain whether the Phils will add a hitter, they most surely will make other roster tweaks as the winter moves on. They are likely to fill their backup catcher’s spot in-house (see story), but could add a utility infielder and more bullpen depth on minor-league contracts.

“I think there will probably be another move or two before we get to Clearwater,” Klentak said. “Who and when remains to be seen.”