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Health, Not Performance, May Justify a Move
Before we get started, let me get one thing straight: Chase Utley is still more than capable of playing second base at a very good, and possibly still elite, level. While the advanced defensive metrics note a decline in his play at second in an admittedly small sample in 2012, he still more than holds his own at the position.
Nor is Freddy Galvis anything close to an adequate replacement there. Defensively, the masterful Galvis is now probably Utley's superior, but they might as well be from different galaxies with regard to their offensive production. Utley's worst wOBA, in 152 plate appearances in his rookie season in 2003: .313. Freddy Galvis in 2012, in 200 plate appearances: .266. If Galvis ever has a better season at the plate than Utley's worst season, I will be shocked.
Over the past two years, the Phillies, Utley, and the press have been engaged in an informational Cold War about the status of Utley's health, particularly with regard to his bad knees, which have caused him to miss almost a full season's worth of games between 2011 and 2012. The strangeness of Spring Training 2012 cannot be forgotten. "Healthy" became "a few days" became "nearly half a season" in a matter of weeks.
Chase Utley is, by reputation, not a loquacious fellow. He's also a "gamer, " and "hard-nosed," and "plays the right way." Which may have as a side effect an unwillingness to be completely forthcoming about his health. At least in the past.
For once, I'm inclined to believe Phillies Pravda's statements that their tentative looks at Chase Utley playing third base are due to his health. Second base is, at least in theory, much tougher on the knees than third base. It's also no secret that the Phillies brass, including Charlie Manuel, absolutely love the natural shortstop Galvis and his defense, even at second base.
The Phillies also need to be cognizant of Freddy Galvis' health. Galvis, who turns 23 in November is recovering from a pars fracture in his back, and also famously was busted for testing positive for a PED this summer. There is absolutely no guarantee he returns to any kind of form.
One maddening but also amusing thing about the Phillies is their consistency in staying "on message." From David Montgomery on down, no one seems embarrassed to utter ridiculous falsehoods as a means of misdirection, obfuscation, or just plain contempt for the audience. If they think Utley's knees are almost totally shot, and a move to third base is urgent, they're just not going to say so, compromising possible bargaining position. But the seemingly small step of giving him practice reps at the position speaks volumes, at least to me.
There also comes a time when we, as capital-O "Outsiders," have to acknowledge that the Phillies in general, and Chase Utley in particular, know more about what they're capable of, in terms of health, budget, and performance.
If Utley can hack it at third base (a very big "if" -- he failed in a season-long audition at Triple-A in 2002, and his arm strength may not cut it), and if the Phillies feel that they are given the following options -- 90 games of Utley at second base, and so-so free agent/trade acquisition at third, or 130-140 games of Utley at third, and 140-150 games of Galvis at second base -- it's time to swallow hard and think about the direction of the franchise. Will the extra 30-40 games of Chase Utley, and Galvis' tremendous second base defense, be preferable to a replacement level third baseman and almost half a season of Galvis at second base anyway?