Dodgers: Chase Utley’s Return is a Whole Mixed Bag of Something
By Sunit Bhakta
The Dodgers made a move on Tuesday, reportedly re-signing veteran Chase Utley, but did they need to do it?
Chase Utley will be back in blue after all. After a while of speculation about what would happen with the veteran second baseman, the Dodgers decided to replicate last year and bring him back on board, late into the offseason. But this time the deal is for two years.
His return has less to do with his on-field play than it does his clubhouse presence. He is no threat to Logan Forsythe’s second base job but will again serve as more depth and veteran leadership.
He is beloved by the team, and the team’s stars actually pushed for the front office to re-sign him before the 2017 season. He is Corey’s Seager’s mentor, as they have a unique and special relationship for two guys on opposite spectrums of their career. And Utley is the guy Clayton Kershaw would want his kids to watch tape on.
He has the most experience on the team, a ring, and tremendous knowledge to share with the rest of the club. All in all, he is someone for younger guys to look up to and pattern their games after. He is a positive influence and perfect for youthful players to be around.
So there’s no surprise in this sense that the Dodgers brought him back. The borderline Hall of Famer makes the team happy and will continue to serve as an essential clubhouse leader and mentor.
However, how far do all the intangibles go when also taking into account production? There’s no way around it: Chase Utley was bad last season. He hit .236/.324./.405 in 353 plate appearances. The only reason it is viewed as acceptable is that those numbers came from a bench role and because of what he means to the team.
But he turned 39 in December and isn’t the same athlete he once was. He has lost a step on defense and lost his ability with his bat. It’s only going to get worse over the next two years.
The only thing that he still somewhat has is his patience and batting eye. In 2015 and 2016, he had 7.6% and 7.1% walk rates, respectively. But in 2017 that number went back up to 9.1%, more in line with his career 9.2% walk rate.
His ability to draw walks is still valuable, but it means less when his OBP was as low as .324. And since 2015, his OPS+ has been 75, 82, and 92, in that order, with 100 being league average. So he is undoubtedly a liability with the bat.
Why not go for someone younger, with more potential and production, and with more bearing on the future? It’s easy to say just that, but some will argue that the Dodgers may not have a replacement.
But I highly doubt that. They have tremendous depth in the minors and seemingly unearth a new gem each year. Plus, replicating Utley’s numbers would not be too difficult to, at worst, replicate.
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Defensively, he should be playing second base to give Forsythe a breather from time-to-time. Even though he made some tremendous plays at second last year, it doesn’t mean he is still the same defender he once was. Defense is a big part athleticism, and at 39 he’s lost a few steps.
Another place to put him would be as one of the backups to Cody Bellinger at first because that would help hide Utley’s flaws. He has experience manning first as well, so it would be a smooth transition.
Forsythe and Utley can both play first and second, while Forsythe can play on the other side of the diamond as well, so Utley will get his chances on defense. Whether that will be good or bad remains to be seen., He does have good defensive IQ and hands, but it’s not an exciting prospect.
A lousy bat and declining defense make it harder to agree with this move. That’s where Utley’s intangibles come into play. Just how much do you weigh each aspect? Is it because he’s number 25 on the depth chart that production means less than his effect on team chemistry?
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That is a fair way to look at things. But at the same time, even though you aren’t going to be depending on him to produce, he is wasting a roster spot. He lacks production and is potentially keeping a place from someone more deserving. Everyone has their own opinions on how to judge his spot on the team, but all we can do is wait and see how it turns out. But right now it’s a mix of good and bad with no clear answer. All I can say is that one year would have been better than two.