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?

Rays 7, Phillies 2: Mackanin calls Eickhoff 'a pretty darn good pitcher'

Rays 7, Phillies 2: Mackanin calls Eickhoff 'a pretty darn good pitcher'

BOX SCORE

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies right-hander Jerad Eickhoff pitched two innings, allowed a hit, a run, walked one and struck out two in his spring debut on Monday.

Afterward, manager Pete Mackanin was asked what he believed Eickhoff's ceiling was.

"He's a pretty darn good pitcher right now," Mackanin said.

Indeed, he is.

In his first full season in the majors last year, the 26-year-old right-hander led the Phillies' starting staff in ERA (3.65), starts (33) and innings pitched (197 1/3).

He delivered 20 quality starts and became just the fourth Phillie in the last 20 years to make 33 starts and record a 3.65 ERA or better, joining three pretty good pitchers named Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling. He walked just 1.92 batters per nine innings and that was fourth-best among NL starters.

"Eickhoff is the kind of guy you can count on," Mackanin said. "He throws strikes. He knows what he's doing."

Eickhoff is intent on building on last year's success in 2017. The guy has a Halladay-like work ethic. He arrived in Clearwater on Feb. 1 and got right to work. After his two innings of work on Monday, he put in a couple of hours in the weight room and on a back field running.

"I just have to continue working," he said. "I have a very high standard for myself as a lot of us in here do. We want to be the best players that we can be."

Eickhoff is working on improving his changeup this spring and his overall goal is to make every start -- as he did last season.

"That's the priority -- make every start," he said. "That's always a priority for me.

"I'd also like to incorporate the changeup a little more and use my slider and curveball and not get heavily reliant on one or the other, which happened several times last year and I think got me into trouble at times. So incorporating both for the duration of the season and just being more crisp with execution and location is my goal.

"I'm always looking to get better. I think the sky is the limit. I'm going to continue working, whether it's being Greg Maddux-esque with command or having a good breaking ball, or throwing a changeup like Maddux and guys like that did. There's always something I'm working on and trying to develop and sharpen up."

Eickhoff lines up to start the second game of the regular season behind projected opening day starter Jeremy Hellickson.

The game
The Phillies lost to the Tampa Bay Rays, 7-2. The Phils are 2-2 on the spring.

Maikel Franco had two hits, including his third homer of the spring. It was a long drive to left field on a 1-2 fastball. He also had a single to right field.

"The thing I like early in the spring from him is he's going deeper into counts," Mackanin said. "I think he's working toward a good year this year."

Stassi impresses
Non-roster player Brock Stassi, a candidate to win a job as a reserve first baseman and outfielder (see story), did not play in the game. He, however, has a single, double and homer in the first three games.

Mackanin gushed about Stassi’s defense when asked about it Monday.

"He's one of the best first basemen I've seen in a real long time," Mackanin said. "He has no need to improve on his defense and I like the way he swings the bat. He's a real solid baseball player so he's a guy I really want to get a good look at."

Pitching matters
Starting pitchers Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin are both projected to pitch at Triple A. Both have been slowed early in camp because of health reasons, but are progressing well. Thompson has a sore right wrist and Eflin is recovering from a pair of surgeries to address tendinitis in both knees.

Both pitchers will continue to throw in the bullpen this week and ramp up to live batting practice next week. There is plenty of time for both pitchers to get their arms ready to open the season. However, the Phillies may decide to take a cautious approach with Eflin and let him build some more strength in his knees before they turn him loose. He could stay in Florida for a couple of extra weeks before joining the Triple A club.

Up next
The Phillies host the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. Clay Buchholz will make his first start of the spring. Here is the Phillies' posted starting lineup for the game:

1. Freddy Galvis, SS
2. Howie Kendrick, LF
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, DH
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Chris Coghlan, RF
8. Cameron Rupp, C
9. Scott Kingery, 2B

MLB Notes: Josh Hamilton undergoes knee surgery

MLB Notes: Josh Hamilton undergoes knee surgery

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Josh Hamilton has had another surgery on his balky left knee, ending any chance of the 2010 AL MVP making the Texas Rangers' opening day roster.

The arthroscopic procedure Monday was to repair some damaged meniscus cartilage in his left knee. There were no issues with the surgically repaired ACL in that knee.

Hamilton had left spring training in Arizona and returned to Houston for the second time in less than a week to be examined by Dr. Walt Lowe, who also performed Hamilton's season-ending surgery last June.

The latest knee procedure is the 11th in Hamilton's career, and the third since the 35-year-old slugger last played in the majors in 2015.

Hamilton, in camp on a minor league contract, faces six weeks of rehabilitation before he will be able to start running again.

Orioles: Bourn broke finger during football drill
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Baltimore outfielder Michael Bourn hasn't played football since his sophomore year in high school. But it's a pigskin injury that's preventing him from playing this spring for the Orioles.

On Friday, the speedy 34-year-old broke his right ring finger catching a football at a workout. Bourn, who signed a minor league contract on Feb. 20, will be out for four weeks, making it difficult for him to be ready for Baltimore's April 3 opener. He'll make $2 million if he's put on the 40-man roster.

Bourn has difficult competition. Another veteran major league outfielder, Craig Gentry, signed two days before, plus the Orioles want to take long looks at Rule 5 outfielders Anthony Santander and Aneury Tavarez. Joey Rickard, a Rule 5 pick who played with the team last season, is also a serious contender.

Because he signed late, Bourn hadn't played.

"I was ready to go and pretty much ready to get into games the next couple days and now I've got to wait a about four weeks to heal. I want it to heal correctly but I want to push it, too. There's really nothing I can do about it," he said. (see full story)

Indians: Kipnis sidelined by shoulder injury
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis has a rotator cuff strain and will stop throwing for a couple days.

Kipnis got a cortisone shot on Saturday, and manager Terry Francona didn't sound very worried about the situation.

"If it was during the season we wouldn't do anything," Francona said before Sunday's spring game against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa. "There's so much time to get ready that to kind of put a Band-Aid on it now didn't seem to make sense."

The 29-year-old Kipnis hit .275 with 23 homers and 82 RBIs last season, helping Cleveland to the AL Central title. He added four more homers and eight RBIs in the playoffs as the Indians made it all the way to the World Series before losing to the Cubs in seven games.

Kipnis had been on a shoulder program.

"I would say probably eight out of 10 guys, as they get their arms loose, you feel something," Francona said. "You throw through stuff and you get through the aches and pains of getting back, but then when there is some history there, you just try to use good judgment.

"He can do all his cardio and everything and all that stuff, but throwing is shut down for four to five days. I don't think he's going to hit today."

The Indians also announced left-hander Tim Cooney will be sidelined for 10 to 12 weeks because of a muscle strain in his arm. Cooney went 1-0 with a 3.16 ERA in six starts with St. Louis last season and was claimed off waivers from the Cardinals in November.

"Originally, they thought it was forearm," Francona said. "It's lower than that. By all accounts, it is an extremely unique area."