Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/21/12
This has been a very disappointing season for the Philadelphia Phillies. After posting a poor 37-50 record prior to the all-star break, the team has turned things around to the tune of a 39-24 mark. However, the turnaround has mostly come too late, as they still have to make up four games with 12 left to play just to tie the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League’s second wild card berth. Despite barely even hovering around the .500 mark until recently, the non-contention has enabled the team to evaluate potential pieces of next year’s team at the major league level.
The Phillies installed Domonic Brown in right field on an everyday basis and shifted John Mayberry to center field after the trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. They took a cautious approach with Vance Worley, shut him down when his elbow proved too bothersome, and replaced him with youngster Tyler Cloyd. The improbably hot-hitting Kevin Frandsen has handled the majority of playing time down at the hot corner in Placido Polanco‘s absense. The Phillies have also called upon a slew of relief pitchers, either homegrown or previously acquired via trade, in the hopes that they don’t have to spend any more money in that particular area.
But the Phillies also have another player they plan on evaluating for next season, and he is already a star at the major league level. Chase Utley recently approached the front office with the idea of playing third base next season. It wasn’t a demand, or even a detailed conversation fleshed out logistically with the front office and managerial staff, but Utley suggested that, if it helps the team given the poor free agent class at the position, he could give it a shot. Ruben Amaro, Jr., added that Utley could even see time at the position this season if the Phillies are officially eliminated from the playoff race over the next two weeks.
The Phillies could definitely use some help at third base, but shifting Utley isn’t a cut-and-dried solution, and this positional swap isn’t necessarily going to solve the team’s issues.
For starters, the rationale behind moving him to third base is that the Phillies can’t truly upgrade the position on the free agent market. The third base free agent class is pretty anemic, with names like Geoff Blum, Miguel Cairo, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Scott Rolen. The latter seems mostly done, and the other three aren’t exactly upgrades over the Phillies current situation. Utley at third base represents a better option than anyone available via free agency. The Phillies could look to make a splash via trade, or if the options of David Wright and Kevin Youkilis aren’t exercised, but the team might not be inclined to dole out another lucrative deal to an aging player or ship away more of the already-depleted farm system.
Moving Utley to third base would solve that issue, but it would create another one in that the Phillies don’t exactly have someone waiting to replace him at second base. Sure, they have Freddy Galvis, who was playing defense at an elite level this season before breaking his back and getting suspended for having a trace amount of performance-enhancing drugs in his urine. Galvis hasn’t fully recovered from his injury yet, and can’t hit even if his glove is terrific. The Phillies have flirted with the idea of playing him at third base next season, along with Frandsen, but it ultimately makes no difference. Whether Utley plays second base and that combo plays third base, or vice-versa, that light-hitting combo is still in the lineup. Using Galvis and Frandsen at the keystone would also have the added detriment of playing Utley out of his natural position, in a spot he may not handle well given his recent throwing problems.
The only way moving Utley to third base actually improves the Phillies — aside from determining if the assumption that his defensive skills would translate rings true — is if the team upgraded at second base. Unfortunately, the free agent crop of second basemen and shortstops isn’t that much better than the third base crop. Sure, Jeff Keppinger could fit nicely. Stephen Drew on a one-year deal, if it came to that, could be interesting as well. It seems unlikely that Marco Scutaro would have to settle for an inexpensive, short-term deal, and all indications are that the Phillies are trying to avoid spending a lot on older players. Aside from those names, the classes are loaded with the Ryan Theriot‘s, Yuniesky Betancourt‘s, and Cesar Izturis‘s of the world.
At that point, sticking with the internal options makes sense, but so does using them at third instead of making Utley learn a new position. Frandsen has gained experience at the position this season, and Galvis transitioned from shortstop to second base seamlessly. It’s hard to imagine that, if healthy, he couldn’t handle third base duty.
Besides, there is no guarantee that Utley could even play the position. Yes, Placido Polanco shifted back and forth between these two positions throughout his career, so there is precedent. However, Polanco always had a strong, reliable arm. Utley derives plenty of defensive value from his range and ability to convert fielded balls into outs. If there is a weakness in his usually pristine game, it’s his arm, as he struggles from time to time to make a strong throw to first base. How that throwing issue would translate to third base remains to be seen, but the skepticism is certainly merited. He hasn’t played the position since the Travis Lee and Omar Daal era of Phillies baseball, when he was in the minors, and it sure seems a lot to ask someone with chronic knee pain, who has played half-seasons the last two years, to learn a new position over the offseason.
If Utley could transition to third base seamlessly and, in doing so, stay healthy for a longer period of time, the idea starts to make some sense. But there is very little to suggest he could play the position well, let alone that it would keep him healthier, especially since his chondromalacia isn’t going to disappear. Further, the lack of viable external solutions to replace him at second base renders much of this discussion moot. This is the type of selfless act Utley has become known for throughout his career, and it’s interesting out of the box thinking from a team that hasn’t used its resources that well in recent years. Unless Utley can handle the position well and the team can truly upgrade at second base, it’s an idea not worth pursuing.
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