This probably wasn't the season that Chase Utley envisioned when he stepped onto the field at Citizens Bank Park in April.
That, somehow, is putting it kindly.
I love Chase Utley, and I miss Chase Utley. But there's no getting around it. His final season in Philadelphia was an unmitigated disaster.
I'd love to stop right here and assume that you can remember the rest, but this is a player review and not Liz's Excellent Five Sentence Player Recaplets. So let's start at the beginning, which in this case is January. While practicing in San Francisco (practicing baseball, not a play, though that would be really really awesome), Utley stepped on a baseball and sprained his ankle. By the start of spring training in March it still hadn't healed completely and he was kept out of the lineup, and thus began the saga of Chase Utley's 2015 season. I hoped that his spring training debut in mid-March signaled that his ankle was better and he could start shaking off the rust. As the regular season began, I kept hoping he'd shake off that rust. He said he was OK, so everything should be fine, right?
At first, it was a slow start. As it continued, we called it bad luck. But when it wouldn't let up, I figured that Utley had been cursed by an evil wizard. I was ready to go on a quest to find his talent and luck and free them from the shackles of the wizard. Utley hit .114/.198/.200 in April. I'm not making that up. In 21 games and 81 plate appearances, Chase Utley couldn't muster a .120 average. But when I called it bad luck, I wasn't totally wrong. His BABIP in April was .102, which is shockingly low. 200 points below league average low. Granted, Utley didn't seem to be hitting the ball all that hard, but that's the BABIP of an extremely unlucky guy.
Oh, I'm sorry! That's actually a clip of Utley's insanely amazing deke in game 5 of the 2008 World Series. How did that get in here!? I totally meant to put in a clip of him hitting his eighty millionth weak grounder, but my hand must have slipped and entered "chase utley greatest play of all time" into the search bar instead. Whoopsie!
In May things finally began to normalize, but not before Utley's average actually dropped below .100. Yes, on May 8, 2015, Chase Utley's batting line was .099/.175/.198. From there, things got marginally better. He hit .256 in May, and his average began to creep up toward .200. He ended the month hitting .194 with a BABIP of .293, much much closer to league average. He'd been abysmal in April and better in May, so why couldn't he keep getting better in June?
My bad again! That is totally Utley's inside-the-parker against the Giants in 2011. I must be subconsciously putting these videos in here because recalling Utley's bummer of a season is depressing and unpleasant!
So why couldn't he keep getting better in June? Because this was Chase Utley's 2015 season, where joy goes to die. His stats plummeted again, fielders grew extra arms and hands and feet to catch his (sometimes weakly) batted balls, and he just didn't look... right. He had been saying he was healthy all along, so it was an annoying surprise when he admitted in late-June that the ankle injury he suffered in the offseason had been bothering him ever since. Well, it was annoying, because it can't be a surprise to anyone that Utley hid an injury and tried to play through it. (It should have been a sign of what was to come that Ryne Sandberg admitted that he'd been surprised by Utley's injury. Sandberg resigned just three days later.) Despite being aggravated at Utley for playing through an injury yet again, I was also kind of relieved. Utley's talent hadn't been vacuumed from his body by an evil succubus. He was just hurt!
Utley stayed on the disabled list until August 7, through the non-waiver trade deadline. Once off the DL, Chase hit .484/.485/.742 in his first eight games, which is exhibit Y in the case against Utley hiding and playing through his injuries. Futile, futile exhibit Y, since Utley has shown us time and time again that he'll play through any injury, even if it's noticeably affecting his play. But even with this post-DL bump, I wasn't completely convinced that Utley would be traded. It didn't hurt the Phillies to keep him, as he wasn't going to fulfill his option, and I didn't imagine that any team would give up a player of significance for him. He was (and is still) more valuable to the Phillies than any other franchise, and I unreasonably wanted an incredibly great player or talented prospect in exchange for the greatest second baseman in Philadelphia Phillies franchise history.
And then just as we were getting used to Utley being back AND good, the Phillies traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 19 for young(ish) utility player Darnell Sweeney and righty pitcher John Richy. And despite the departures of Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels, the injury to Cliff Lee, and the continued employment of Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz, Utley's trade signaled the end of something. Not the glory days of playoff appearances -- those ended more than three years ago -- but the end of the beginning. The beginning of the rebuilding, which is about recognizing the need to rebuild and committing to actually doing it. Part of that is saying goodbye to your veterans. I was 100% convinced that the Phillies would hold on to Utley, and I was OK with that. But when they didn't, I was actually a little relieved. The Phillies front office, both then and now, is committed to rebuilding, even when it means making tough choices about franchise players.
I covered the Utley news as it was happening, and I always intended to publish a goodbye post, but I was still so drained from the Hamels trade that I could never gather my wits enough to want to take a crack at a post like that. I said my goodbyes in the news posts and got used to a life without Utley. It was easier not to think about him after he left, I just pretended he was on the DL or he'd retired. He played after he left the Phillies, but to me, his season was over once he was traded. I had to make that bargain with my brain. I didn't watch him play in a Dodgers uniform until the playoffs, and when I finally did it was intensely weird.
But Utley gave me -- nay, THE WORLD -- a present before he left. Chase Utley smiled while playing a game of baseball. That sentence looks unbelievable even now, months after the event in question happened. But it did happen, and there's proof!
Chase Utley smile: CONFIRMED. pic.twitter.com/nGw9wb1dZ5— Danger Guerrero (@DangerGuerrero) August 9, 2015
No, the smile didn't erase everything that came before. But it gave me something I'd always wanted: to see Chase Utley enjoy the game of baseball while he was playing it. Showing visible emotion isn't something Utley does, but that day the young Phillies team cracked his tough, gritty exterior and made him smile.
Now I finally get to say the words I should have said nearly three months ago: goodbye, Chase Utley, and thank you for everything. For the smile and for the memories, though your 2015 season is one I really want to forget.