In the midst of a four-game losing streak with less than a week to go until the trade deadline, it would seem the Phillies are sliding comfortably into “seller” territory. However, Ruben Amaro Jr. has exhibited reluctance when it comes to the notion of moving some of the club’s biggest pieces.
Cliff Lee’s name had all but fallen off the radar by the All-Star break. Now word has it Chase Utley won’t be on the block, either. In fact, Jim Salisbury reported on Thursday that the Phils and Utley might be talking contract extension, adding the team is not even listening to offers for the second baseman at this point in time.
That they are looking into an extension shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Earlier this month Amaro told reporters he hoped Utley would be a Phillie for life. Likewise, Utley admitted he can’t envision wearing another uniform within the last two weeks. The writing has been on the wall for awhile.
We’ll get into whether or not this is a good idea in a moment, but first here's why the timing of these discussions make sense. If the Phils are interested in re-signing Utley, who can become a free agent at season’s end, that means right now – before the deadline – is the time to start hashing out a deal, or at least confirm both sides are on the same page. That way if negotiations aren’t working out, it’s not too late to ship him out.
But beyond sentimental reasons, you might be wondering why the Phillies want to hold on to Utley. He’ll turn 35 in December, hasn’t played anywhere close to a full season since 2009, and chronic knee problems that caused him to miss consecutive spring trainings and several months of baseball in ’11 and ’12 have to be a concern.
The answer might be simpler than you think. Even with his age and injury history, there are few second basemen in baseball better than Utley. His non-qualified .520 slugging percentage would be tops in the Majors at the position, his .866 OPS good for fourth, while 3.2 wins above replacement ranks fifth.
Does anybody honestly think the Phillies are going to be able to replace that kind of production with another player? Utley will be the second-best free agent on the market behind Robinson Cano (and he’s not getting out of New York), and who in their farm system is a better option? Cesar Hernandez? Freddy Galvis?
Some would suggest the Phillies aren’t necessarily looking for “better” as much as they are simply trying to get younger, but you have to ask yourself whether the prospect(s) they would get in return for a rental player combined with the downgrade at second base would actually be more helpful than Utley. Remember, we’re talking about a big-market team that is currently scheduled to shed over $50 million in salary this offseason. They have to get younger, although not necessarily at the expense of trying to compete in 2014 and beyond.
What an extension will cost might be the most prescient question of all. Obviously nobody wants to see the Phillies get locked into another lengthy, expensive contract with an aging veteran. Dealing with Utley might not be too taxing though. David Murphy presented an estimate of sorts for the Daily News:
Dustin Pedroia recently signed a contract extension that, on its back end, will pay him $40 million over the three years in which he will be 35, 36 and 37 years old. Ian Kinsler will make $23 million for his 35-year-old and 36-year-old seasons. Kevin Youkilis signed a one-year, $12 million deal for his 34-year-old season this year. So we can say that the going rate for a second/third baseman of Utley's ilk is around $13 million per season.
$13 million is actually slightly less than Utley is earning ($15M) for 2013, and it's hard to imagine he’d get more than three years from anybody. That still may be a bit on the long side, especially with full a no-movement, but he’s demonstrated this season that there is still quite a bit left in the tank.
At this stage everybody is aware of the risks associated with Utley, and knows he needs a new contract. But beyond wishing to see him retire as a Phillie, there’s typically not much mention of the upside to keeping him around – which mainly boils down to he’s the best the organization can do for now or in the immediate future it would appear.
Truthfully, Utley is the best that a lot of teams could do at second base, and probably will be for at least another year or two. Galvis and Hernandez might be nice players in their own right, but is either one of them going to reach the level of a five-time All Star? A Hall-of-Fame talent? Would trading Utley net a player or players who will ever be worth even close to as much as he is today?
These are difficult questions to answer. If I'm Amaro, I'm still playing both sides of this, and my refusal to take calls on Utley is only to drive the price up. At the same time, I still need a second baseman, so I'm not just giving this one away.
What would you do?