Kobayashi Maru: Trade Chase?
I've been running this scenario in my brain for a few weeks now, and I'd be fairly surprised if a plurality of you all haven't been doing the same thing: if the Phillies are totally out of this thing -- this thing being the ever-ethereal postseason hunt -- by the trade deadline, who will stay and who will go? Put differently, if Ruben Amaro, Jr. is in a position to sell major leaguers for prospects, who will he sell? And, perhaps just as importantly, who should he sell, and who do we want him to sell? Without consigning the 2013 Phillies to the dustbin of history before they've written their final chapters, how do we begin to answer these questions?
There are certain players that we can agree on fairly easily. If the Youngs Delmon and Michael are hitting in July, and the Phillies are fairly assuredly longshots for any offseason glory, then it's fairly obvious that the Phillies ought to sell high on their one year rentals. Michael Young may very well retire after this year, and while I suppose there's some way of arguing for a Delmon Young contract extension, I'd imagine this remains the less popular option overall. If the Phillies can get some high-risk prospects or even some low-ceiling bench or bullpen help, then mazel tov.
There are more difficult names, however. Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee, Mike Adams, Kyle Kendrick, Ben Revere, Jimmy Rollins, John Mayberry, Jr, and, yes, Chase Utley. We could conceivably think deeply about any and all of these names, judging how plausible or how desirable it would be to trade them. But Utley is a uniquely interesting case for two reasons: first, his eerie mystique; and second, his contract situation.
The first is a fairly obvious point: Chase Utley has meant a lot to the Phillies during his career. I need not belabor the stats, but during his peak from 2005-2009, Utley earned between 7 and 8 fWAR. To put this in perspective, during Mike Trout's wacky video game year last year, he earned 10 fWAR. Miguel Cabrera, the eventual MVP, earned 6.9 fWAR. As a metric for determining how good a baseball player is, we can agree that WAR has its failings, but as a general testament to how good Utley was both offensively and defensively (and, let's not forget, on the basepaths), it drives the point home effectively. So, yes, the man who was not only more valuable than 2013 Miguel Cabrera for one year, but for five years straight carries some weight in Phillies lore. He is quantitatively and qualitatively the best second baseman the team has ever seen.
But that brings us to the contract situation. Utley is presently signed to a team friendly deal, at seven years, 85 million dollars (details here, via Cot's Contracts). It's been a tremendously valuable deal for the Phillies, but it unfortunately ends after this year. Complicating things further, as you likely know, Chase Utley has been...injury prone the last few years. In fact, this is the first year since 2010 that Chase has begun the season on the active roster, as opposed to the disabled list. Injury has seemed, over the past three years, to be less of a question of "if" and more a question of "when" with Utley. So what does a contract look like for a player like this, and are the Phillies interested in penning it?
The answers to these questions will, presuming they have fallen out of the postseason hunt, greatly impact the Phillies' decision come July. The answers to these questions are also entirely unknowable. Comparables don't spring to mind for Utley, as injury has not sapped his ability to perform on the field, but simply his ability to stay on the field. So, the entire contract must operate as a sort of progressive gamble: one will get good value from the contract, hypothetically, if one can guess accurately the extent of Chase's injury troubles. If they're over, as one might so hopefully infer from the beginning of this season, then you sign him. If not, well, it's harder.
And this is the background for answering any sort of Utley trade question that one might want to ponder. But this only attempts to answer the Platonic question of "do I want to trade Chase Utley?" Conceivably, there is a practical question, too, namely, "Do I want to trade Chase Utley for that?" Remember, the Phillies may be able to get a compensatory pick if Utley leaves, and any return would have to account for both Utley's production for the rest of the season and for the potential value of that draft pick at the end of the season.
Royals Review, our network's Kansas City Royals site, has thankfully done some of the legwork for us here. To summarize their findings briefly: Utley looks a lot like Carlos Beltran did in 2011, when the Mets traded him to the San Francisco Giants for Zack Wheeler. To be sure, this is a best case scenario. But assuming that a contending team would want Utley, and presuming that Ruben Amaro is no Sandy Alderson, we might assume that the Phillies could get a top 4-9 prospect from 2B needy teams -- say, the Oakland Athletics, the Kansas City Royals, and the Baltimore Orioles.
It would very much surprise me if Ruben could pry top prospect Kyle Zimmer from the Royals, but I think that Royals Review hits on a plausible second name in Yordano Ventura. Ventura, tearing up AA ball right now, is a high-K pitcher with a small frame, so while the upside is phenomenal, there is some concern that he is slated for the bullpen. Ventura is therefore fairly low-risk, but with a highly variable reward.
For the Athletics, (top 15 prospects here), I would expect Addison Russell, Sonny Gray, and Dan Straily are fairly untouchable for a rental, though you never know. My guess would be that the Phillies could trade for outfielder Michael Choice -- a centerfielder who was the A's first round pick in 2010. While Choice is rapidly playing his way out of the Phillies' price range, the A's have a plurality of outfielders in Yoenis Cespedes, JJ Reddick, Coco Crisp, Chris Young, and Seth Smith, so he is expendable and fairly attractive as an option. Beyond Choice, I'd expect Grant Green would be appealing to the Phillies as an Utley replacement, but the mid-power, high average second baseman may be too close to the majors for Oakland to trade.
Finally, the Orioles baffle me a bit. I'm welcome to any suggestions in the comments, but the only one that makes sense (from this list) is Jonathan Schoop, a second baseman/shortstop in the Grant Green mold. My colleague, Joecatz, sees this as an impossible trade, and while I'm not sure I agree, I can see his point: like Green, Schoop may be too close to contributing to sacrifice. A more plausible and riskier target may be LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, currently pitching well in high A, but with much development left, and, as we know, many potential setbacks to come.
So, in the end, I want to pitch this to you: given what we know about Chase, is it a trade, or is it an extension? And does the Phillies' being in or out of contention change this calculus?
And if it is trade, then who makes the most sense, or offers a reward big enough to say goodbye to Chase "WFC" Utley? Yordano Ventura, the low-floor but variable-ceiling RHP? Michael Choice, the expendable but talented outfielder? Grant Green or Jonathan Schoop, ostensible Utley stand-ins, though by no means Utley replacements? Or Eduardo Rodriguez, a projectable lefty, who could likely be had without too much concession from a monetary standpoint?