Please enjoy the next entry in our "Designated Columnists" series, featuring the excellent Bill Parker from The Platoon Advantage. Cee Angi's previous entry on the Phillies' third base situation can be found here. - P. Lyons
I love Chase Utley. I just want you to know that. I'm not a Phillies fan by any stretch; I'm here to give you my unbiased, "outsider's" opinion on what the Phillies should do with Utley, so it only seems fair to let you know right out of the gate that he's probably been my favorite player (non-Joe-Mauer division) for most of the last eight seasons -- not quite on the Mac's love letter level, but I'm a big fan.
I want to get that out of the way, because I have the feeling I'm about to say some things about Utley that do not sound like nice things. They come from a well-meaning place. I love Chase Utley. I just want to make that perfectly clear.
Now: easily the best player of what has arguably been the Phillies' best decade and one of the three or four best position players in the team's history, Utley has one year remaining on the seven-year, $85 million deal he signed back in January of 2007. Should the Phillies be looking to extend him now? And if so, how much and for how long?
I looked at essentially the same question last week over on the SB Nation Yankees site, The Pinstriped Bible, regarding Robinson Cano, also due for a new contract after 2013. Cano will turn 30 next year. I found that players who could have been considered great second basemen through age-29, like Cano, tended to continue to perform very well in their age 30-32 seasons, but fall off very quickly thereafter.
Utley will turn 34 before the next time he takes the field. You might guess that this finding would suggest bad news for his future, and you'd be right. Here are the players since 1947 who produced the most Baseball-Reference WAR (the version I'll use throughout this piece) from ages 26 through 33, which not coincidentally represent Utley's ages as a full-time player:
These are all great players, at least until you get towards the bottom, but they're considered great because of what they did from age 26-33, not what came after. From age 32 to 33 to 34, Joe Morgan's wRC+ dipped from 183 to 145 to 108, and it topped 120 only once more after that; his WAR dropped from 9.5 to 5.6 to 1.5, and topped 4.0 again only once. Biggio played forever, but from 33 through 35, his wRC+ went 145, 119, 101, his WAR from 4.9 to 1.3, then back up to 3.1 (but 2.5 was his high from there on out, and he totaled 3.5 WAR from age 36 through 41). The great Jackie Robinson stayed great with the bat through 35, but he had to switch positions so his value took a hit. Then he was merely average offensively at 36 and 37.
And so on. Sandberg had already hit a wall at age 33, as had Fox; Alomar hit his (and hit it hard) at 34. Grich stayed productive through ages 34 and 35, but missed 88 games to injuries over those two seasons. Once you hit Schoendienst and below, you've got guys who were barely half the player Utley's been to begin with, but you can see for yourselves that the stories after 33 (and in many cases, even earlier) weren't good ones for them, either. Three of them were out of baseball entirely by the age at which Utley's next contract would kick in.
That leaves two of the 15 players above who present pictures that are at least somewhat promising. Lou Whitaker's worst wRC+ from age 34 through age 38 was the 121 he put up at age 37. His defense (per DPS, which WAR uses) stayed average to just slightly below average right until his final year, at 38. He did play fewer games every year from 34 on -- 138, 130, 119, 92, 84 -- but at least they were good games. The second player is reality-TV superstar Jeff Kent; he had his last really good year with the bat at age 34 in 2002 (147 wRC+), but kept between 120 and 133 from 35 to 39 (and even stayed around average at age 40, after which Kent called it quits). His defensive value plummeted, though; he didn't post a WAR over 4.0 after age 34, or over 2.0 in his last three seasons.
All of this is not looking good for Utley, whose offensive slide looks like it's already started; from a 141 wRC+ in 2009, to 128, to 112 and 114 over his past two partial years. Of course, he's been hampered by injury, and there's a chance that, if he's finally fully healthy in 2013, he bounces back. But can we bet on that, and if it happens, how long can it last?
More than that, I'm worried about his defense. Utley has remained excellent in the field (according to the metrics) even as the injuries have sapped his offensive abilities, but the track record for second basemen maintaining those abilities into their mid-late thirties is not good at all. What happened to Jeff Kent has happened to most -- per DRS (hardly perfect, but I know a trend when I see it), among top second basemen, only Whitaker and Willie Randolph (who would have come in at #19 on the list above) consistently remained even average in the field at 35 or later, and they didn't stay much above average for long.
There's already talk of Utley moving to third, as I'm sure you've been and will continue to be beaten over the head with. I'm not sure this will help his value; third base really isn't much easier than second, and the track record for even very good defensive shortstops moving to third as they aged (Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Fernandez) is spotty at best. Utley can continue to be a solid second (or third) baseman right now, but I think his future, a year or two or three down the road, is as a first baseman or a poor third baseman.
And that's bad news. Say Utley pulls a Kent and continues to put up around a 115-120 wRC+ for the next five years. Whether at first or as a second- or third-base butcher, that's basically Adam LaRoche or Aubrey Huff - the kind of guys a good team signs to a one-year deal with hopes that they turn in a good year -- not the kind of guy you sign to any kind of long-term contract.
Utley is a very good player right now, and there's every reason to expect him to keep being a good player, or even a very good one, whenever he's healthy, in 2013. But the prospective new contract would kick in in 2014. You'd like to believe he'll keep being just as good, but history suggests that this is the time when he will start to become something of a ticking time bomb. If I were Ruben Amaro, Jr., I would offer Utley a very modest, two- to three-year extension, figuring he'll still provide decent value for a year or so and is a good guy to keep around after that.
It's unlikely that Utley will take that kind of offer right now, because if he goes out and has a strong bounce-back year in 2013, there will be some team out there who will give him a much larger, three- to four-year deal for 2014 on. And as much as I love Utley, as much as it would pain me to see him go, I emphatically do not want to be that team. Second basemen -- or guys who used to be second basemen -- at age 35 and older are just not smart investments.