The Dodgers re-signed Chase Utley last winter primarily as insurance while they figured out a permanent solution at second base. Now it looks like the team can’t live without him.
Let’s be real, watching Chase Utley play last season after the Dodgers acquired him from the Phillies was painful. His batting average was beyond pitiful, and his main contribution (“the slide”) launched a new MLB rule named after him that has middle infielders and fans alike wringing their hands almost every night (I really miss the neighborhood play).
The team’s early re-signing of Utley made sense, as they tried to figure out how to fill the void left at second base when they traded promising prospect Jose Peraza and didn’t make an initial play to re-sign Howie Kendrick. Things rarely turn out the way they were intended in life and in baseball. The Dodgers re-signed Kendrick at the last minute to be the main starter at second, but then he went down with a strained calf in spring training.
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The door was left wide open for the 37-year-old Utley to prove he could be more than a left-handed bat off the bench or part-time infielder. So far, the results have been literally game-changing for the Dodgers, to the point where I think it’s safe to assume Kendrick has lost the job at second. In the field, Utley has played the kind of hard-nosed, error-free defense he was known for in his prime. He is saving the pitching staff’s bacon on a regular basis–diving for every ball, starting double plays from his seat, making all the plays look routine.
While not a prototypical leadoff guy, Utley is doing a bang-up job there, slashing .302/.373/.415. The power is gone but the line drives are plentiful, a philosophy of hitting that seems to be catching on with the rest of the team. His heads-up base-running skills have helped the Dodgers scratch out runs that never materialized last season.
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When Utley came over to the Dodgers in 2015, everybody in the clubhouse talked about his leadership abilities. Now I understand. Clayton Kershaw is as great as ever, Kenta Maeda is even better than advertised, the bullpen is solidifying, Adrian Gonzalez is still Mr. RBI, Yasiel Puig has a new lease on his baseball life, and Enrique Hernandez is a spark plug utility man. But Utley’s contribution just might be the key to it all because of the tone he sets for the team, day in and day out.